Thursday 3 May 2018

Double Review: 'Virtue' by The Voidz and 'Boarding House Reach' by Jack White

Julian Casablancas adopts auto-tune and Jack White raps. Somehow it all works.

Noughties indie posterboys Julian Casabalancas (formerly of the Strokes) and Jack White (formerly of the White Stripes) may have just saved rock music. I was starting to give up on the genre, thinking it had run its course. Rock music has after all been around for over 50 years. In the last decade, hip hop seems to be the genre where all the groundbreaking creativity is going on, whilst new rock acts continue to rely on revival movements. All along I should have known what was needed to give rock it's much needed sense of freshness – rock needed to start blending elements of hip hop.

Yes, rock and hip hop are no strangers to one another, they've been crossing paths since the days of the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine. However, there have also been a number of ugly mutations. Just take a look at Limp Bizkit or Kid Cudi’s Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven – two instances that make you pray wilfully for rock and hip hop to never cross paths again. However, these were just poorly-bred hybrids. Rock and rap can work together with enough fine-tuning of ingredients as these two records show.

Casablancas’s new project The Voidz is primarily a rock band – their 2014 debut album Tyranny was a scuzzy rock record through and through. Virtue on the other hand is a lot more than a rock album. It’s second track ‘QYURRYUS’ is evidence of this – a pulsing electrorock anthem that sees Julian chanting like a Native American shaman before throwing out some auto-tune soaked vocal runs at the end. It's completely nuts and unlike any rock tune you've ever experienced. Following it are a number of other experimental tunes each with their own urban influences. ‘AlieNNatioN’ borders on being a Gorillaz song with its moody groove, whilst ‘My Friends The Walls’ contains digital vocal harmonies, playing out like a T-Pain version of 'Bohemian Rapsody'. It’s a rock album that's not just borrowing ideas from hip hop - it's taking hip hop sounds and pushing them forward.

Jack White’s Boarding House Reach meanwhile is an equally experimental rock album. At it’s core, it’s riding the traditional bluesy sound that every other Jack White album has rode. However, there are now synthesizers and drum patterns thrown in to disrupt the status quo - and not just your average synths and beats. ‘Hypermisophoniac’ buries a funky blues-rock tune beneath a distractingly dissonant sequence of bleeps, managing to be both frustrating and fascinating. ‘Respect Commander’ meanwhile rides a sped up drum loop complete with orchestra hits. Of course, the urban flavours don’t end there – take ‘Ice Station Zebra’ in which Jack White can discernibly be heard rapping.

Both rockers go where most rockers dare not go. And yet, miraculously, none of it feels awkward. Julian Casablancas’s auto-tune wailing suits the demented vibe of the music, whilst Jack White’s rapped verse feels tastefully done. It’s not like they've donned gold chains and grills and starting producing videos surrounded by twerking women – the hip hop influence is subtle, with loopy guitar solos and meaty riffs still taking prominence. They know the limits of their whiteness.

There were moments on both albums where I wasn’t so keen, largely for other aspects of the music. Casablancas's lyrics sometimes border on pretentiousness on Virtue – particularly the garbled nonsense of ‘Wink’. Jack White meanwhile can’t help but delve into some country on ‘What’s Done is Done’ and even some classical on ‘Humoresque’ – two genres I have no interest in (although the jazzy outro of the latter track is nice). 

This doesn’t take away from the fact that both albums are still enjoyably innovative - sometimes the best albums have to play with ideas that don't appeal to everyone. Overall, I'm more taken aback by Boarding House Reach in which there's absolutely no filler - even the interludes, topped with spoken word passages about the dangers of technology, feel like they need to be there. Virtue sometimes relies too hard on being experimental purely for the sake of being experimental as on 'Black Hole', which could have been an awesome noise rock thrasher if it wasn't deliberately soaked in toilet bowl lo-fi production. 'Just because something's popular doesn't make it good' is one of the lyrics on this album - true, but just because something experimental doesn't make it good either. I'm still loving Virtue, but Jack White still takes the prize on Boarding House Reach for managing to compose experimental tracks that are still good songs when you strip back the kookiness.

Virtue by The Voidz 
Boarding House Reach by Jakc White