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A strange and compelling experience - 83%

Abominatrix, November 29th, 2008

Ved Buens Ende was certainly one of the most wonderfully unique and strange entities to come slinking out of the Norwegian black metal fold, and I was a huge fan of "Written in Waters" from the moment its startling originality first struck my ears. Naturally, when I learned about the Virus project, I was very excited, but I was dismayed upon hearing the samples the band put up on a website long before the album was actually released. It simply didn't sound enough like VBE to satisfy my cravings, I suppose, and I didn't care for the distorted vocals at all. For some reason it took a long time for the album to actually come out on Jester Records, and during that interval I more or less forgot about it completely until a friend casually mentioned that he had downloaded it and that he thought it was fantastic. While I was very skeptical at first, it didn't take me long to realise that he was right to think so.

I really ought to have known better than to think that Czral would produce sub-par music. He plays guitar here, and not drums as he did with Ved Buens Ende, but listening to both bands as well as Aura Noir's early rehearsal stuff, one can really tell that he was the mastermind behind much of what VBE did. Virus features plenty of the chiming, dissonant chords that the previous band was known for, as well as similarly busy and fascinating bass-work that often commands plenty of attention. It is fair to say in some senses that this really is the musical continuation of Ved Buens Ende, only the mood of this Virus debut is somewhat different. I hesitate to use the term "up-beat", because while some humour obviously went into the mixture of creation here, it feels as though there is a great deal of anxiety present in the music. That really is the best way I can summarise things, too .. it feels almost as though some bipolar individual is sitting in front of you with a tentative smile on his face while he flips pages in an old photo album, showing you pictures of his family and friends; and every so often he gets a disturbed, pained look on his face and is reminded of something terrible or ominous that has happened, or maybe will soon happen and he starts to flip those pages a little more frantically. Before long you realise something is definitely off-kilter about these photographs, and you become nervous yourself, thinking that perhaps the next time you look at the book what you'll see will damage you in some way. This feeling of tension, of expectancy is always lurking nearby, and while I can only guess at this, it does seem to link tenuously with the themes of automobiles and canines that are the odd obsession that this record keeps drifting back to.

Indeed, the intro suggests a field recording taken from inside a moving car on a rain-swept highway at night, while some piercing, high ambient notes drift into the mix. There are a few of these mysterious ambient pieces scattered throughout "Carheart" and they're all similarly short-lived, with nebeulous purposes that one can only begin to guess at. The first song comes in with very live, underproduced drums and at first I was a little mystified until everything pauses, there are some hits on the hi-hat and the album's real production, something clear and organic and very fitting, makes itself felt for the first time. The whole band demands that you concentrate on very limber and nimble rhythms, and the drumming is extremely impressive, rivalling any of Czral's own performances (he obviously chose well and with great care). It's apparent that this is indeed a little closer to rock music and a little less lead-weighted than Ved Buens Ende was, with much more of an earthbound and even slightly dirty feel. It will take most listeners some time to realise this, but the material here can often be quite catchy, as exemplified by the extremely groovy (in a good sense) "Queen of the High Ace", which includes a chap who often goes by the name of Garm doing guest vocals and strangely, though you can tell it's his delivery, trying to sound a lot like Czral himself. The vocals do need to be brought up here as they helped put me off of the band at first .. they're definitely not very tuneful, definitely not black metal vocals and sometimes treated with that often-irritating megaphone effect that a lot of modern bands insisten on using periodically. I've grown to like them over time though, and while mumbling like a tranquilised psych patient through a telephone still doesn't sound that great to me, "Carheart"'s delivery is mostly unhindered by effects and the naked bewilderment and frustration in the words can be felt even through the rather monotonous and drony vocal presentation. This is far from a vocally-oriented band, however, with everything, even the dextrous, jazzy bass-lines and beautifully clean and untriggered-sounding drums being far more likely to inspire a listener to sit up and take notice at all times.

"Road" is an instrumental piece that calls to mind VBE more than just about anything else on this album. Its slow, hypnotic structure does suggest a long, winding and possibly almost empty road, while Czral picks out broken chords in a deliberate and ominous manner while a second guitar drifts feedback in and out of the right channel and the drums ride on the cymbal while providing a methodical plod of a beat. I just confirmed that yes, the piece is almost six minutes long, and once again I've just listened to it and been completely oblivious to the passing of time. I'm sure people who drive through long stretches of country often get this feeling while on the road, and that it can be both liberating and a little bit unsettling as you realise that kilometres of vista have passed you by and you can't really account for the distance you've apparently travelled or remember any exact landmarks that you might have seen with open eyes and yet not really registered at all. Then, from this somewhat laid-back (though sinister-seeming, in a subtle way) exploration we come to the most aggressive piece here, "Gun, Meet Mother", which features an entirely new sort of vocal delivery and even some screams. These chords are just so odd-sounding, even when they're chugged out in rapidly palm-muted fashion. It seems as though Czral might have been abducted by the same aliens that gave Voivod's Piggy guitar lessons in the mid-1980s.

I feel that the last three tracks, which follow the final short ambient break, are among the strongest the album has to offer, especially the lengthy "The Elevator", which includes a great number of riff changes and ends with a very powerful and majestic progression that is quite atypical of the album, though the very jazzy drumming that accompanies it is certainly par for the course here and I really wouldn't have it any other way. I should also mention "Hustler" as it features entirely clean guitar and vocals courtesey of the fellow from Spiral Architect, who here employs an almost hesitant, reedy voice that is obviously nothing like his presentation in his own band. The second half of the song is dominated by a sample from the Andrei Tarkovsky film "Stalker", which depicts the very end of an argument between a man and a woman before the former abruptly turns his back and walks out; and yes, she is bawling hysterically and not experiencing some wild ecstatic moment.

So then, "Carheart" is a progressive metal album in the true sense, and comes from the mind of a truly inventive musician and the hands of skilled players who know precisely what they are about. While its message and connotations are rather obscurely put and difficult to grasp, it is so fascinating that those who are drawn by its sounds will keep returning to it and feel closer to its essence the more they listen. I certainly suggest that fans of the more "out-there" works of Voivod get their hands on this, and believe Ved Buens Ende enthusiasts would do well to hear where Czral took this sound, too, though the second (and just released) Virus album is certainly a lot darker and more in line with the VBE vision than this one.