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From a country known for its relatively wintery landscapes like Norway, I would not have expected to hear an overtly desert-rock styled album, as I do with avant-garde rockers Virus and their third full length. From the ashes of legendary avant-metal act Ved Buens Ende came Virus, a band that has often been met with conflicting genre labels and categorizations, and all to their credit; they do bear a strikingly unique sound to them. 'The Agent That Shapes The Desert' starts 2011 on quite a good note for these talented musicians, and while I cannot say that the magic of this album is all too suited to my tastes, I have no trouble seeing why fans of metal and avant-garde music alike are swooning over the record.
From a personal perspective, I see the music on Virus' 'The Agent That Shapes The Desert' as being some sort of eccentric cross between fellow Norwegians Arcturus, and the latter-era Americana of drone pioneers Earth. Contrary to the 'metal' label that this band and album has been receiving alot, the sound is instead more rooted in a sort of jazz-inspired desert rock, full with dissonant riffing, strange song structures and odd time signatures to hold up the rear. Instrumentally, I must say that the music is incredible at painting some quirky imagery of a post-apocalyptic desert, complete with tumbleweed and wind-bitten cow skulls.
Where the sound of Virus starts to go wrong with me are primarily to do with the vocals of Czral. Feeling far too highly mixed in terms of volume, Czral's somewhat operatic croon really tends to grind against the sound of the album, feeling cheesy and even campy at times. Although I will admit that the voice does grow with each listen, the mixing issue remains an issue. Also, while melody is obviously not a big concern with alot of avant-garde music, Virus' fairly concise and riff-based music songwriting could have done with some hooks to add a more engaging quality to the music.
An excellent album on an instrumental level, although I still am not yet convinced by the vocal work even after several experiences with it. 'The Agent That Shapes The Desert' will be sure to be an album that sticks around for quite a while on playlists, and while the desert rock style here doesn't much mesh with my personal tastes, I can certainly see this as certainly being one of the more unique albums to come out in 2011.
There is a God! And he listens to the name Czral! It took Virus three years to come up with The Agent that Shapes the Desert. This time they did it all by themselves. Without a big label behind them, Virus took control of everything. Fans were able to make orders even before the album was recorded. The earned cash was spent on a nice looking digipack (which is hard to read), a vinyl edition and brand new merchandise.
The Agent that Shapes the Desert again is truly Virus, but better and perhaps also more easy listening than both predecessors. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still avant-garde jazzy rock and metal, hard to compare with any other bands apart from Czral’s legendary ex-band Ved Buens Ende. But this time the sound structures are more naturally, fluently and some patterns even haunt inside your head for days. Previously it took many spins to remember the incomprehensible music. Like no other Virus blend jazzy drums and bass lines with mysterious and dissonant guitar chords. The guitar sound is thin and crystal clear. Perfect to discover new magic each listening! Almost all vocals consist of multiple layers and, excuse me, they sometimes remember me of System of a Down. In Call of the Tuskers Ulver frontman Rygg takes care of some really nice and fragile vocal parts. Beautiful!
Fans of Virus will not be disappointed. The Agent that Shapes the Desert doesn’t hold any bad track. People who like their music adventurous without sounding too proggy, should go for Virus as well. Only for their originality you should check it out! A true masterpiece!
While he's performed short stints with some of the most popular acts in all of Norse black metal, it is the more obscure Ved Buens Ende and Virus that will define the contributions of Carl-Michael Eide and Einhar Sjurso to the musical realm, and distend their legacy unto both eternity and oblivion. The Agent That Shapes the Desert is the third Virus album, honing in on the promise of The Black Flux, and it's hypnotic straight from the opening passages of the title track. Polished, progressive, and supremely psychedelic without ever needing to puncture an artery or send sublime smoke into the lungs of its listener, it speaks of a swerving, curving post-metal paradise that I feel very fortunate to have experienced.
The plot is not so thick as you might think. Virus accomplishes this medium with streams of dissonant, eerie guitar work that is adjoined to the incredible, fluid bass, which in itself would be trance-inducing due to its harried complexity and the deceptively dour, monotonous vocals of Eide. Where The Black Flux was largely successful at this formula, The Agent That Shapes the Desert almost never fails. It's less shining, perhaps. Less polar. But it wrests the listener from his or her perch in the wings of its alien dreaming and then drifts across the vast, empty expanse of the composers' thoughts. "Chromium Sun" and "Dead Cities of Syria" are simply astounding in their blissful bending of environment, waltzes of controlled ardor giving voice to the dry and delightful poetry of the lyrics. "Parched Rapids" another example of perfection with its thumping bass and the incandescent symmetry of its jangling, jarring guitar passages; whereas "Call of the Tuskers" creates an indie rock asylum for the paranoid post-rocking entrepreneur.
If Voivod had written a sequel to Nothingface while tripping on cactus juice in some plot of endless red sands and twisted Snake's genitalia until he had become some lurid baritone, it might sound like The Agent That Shapes the Desert. This is one of those bands and albums which openly mocks simple categorization, and yet it's appeasing; more accessible than either of their prior efforts, and one that I simply have not been able to stop listening to. The lyrics are intense, and despite their novelty, the compositions are incredibly focused. Outside of the band's own scripture, there is just nothing quite like it, and I do hope more will take the opportunity to experience both the shimmering, mirage-like highs and the muted hues of its lows. The gauntlet of the avant-garde has been thrown for the year 2011. Who dares to pick it up?
At this rate I'll never be able to rate any Virus album with less than a 100. I've been struggling for the last few minutes with the fact that I can't give an album a 110. Keep that in mind (along with the fact that reviews are, by nature and definition, subjective) while reading this review; I wouldn't want to be responsible for an overhype and a subsequent massive let-down. But do also keep in mind that I try to be as objective as possible, for as long as possible.
What we have here won't necessarily surprise anyone who's been following and enjoying Virus' music since 2003, and yet I can tell, as it happened to me, that more than one jaw will drop while listening to their latest presentation. More fierce, more mental, much more complex both in technicality and delivery, this album shows itself as a compelling and engaging upgrade from its older siblings.
We are greeted by the eponymous song by means of a considerably familiar collection of sounds, structurally speaking. The first riff of the song speaks strongly of the previous album, at times even hinting at that lost VBE rehearsal demo from which most of its songs came. I'm talking slow-ish tempo, dancing clean bass and a droning, slightly dissonant riff. Things start getting shaky and a bit tangled just as soon as said riff gives way to Czral's voice. A low, trembling string of a crooner voice which is reflected in two lines of (self)backing vocals one octave higher and one octave lower, creating a strange, sticky tunnel of many voices which converge perfectly (since they're the same voice, one would say rather unceremoniously) to create a powerful stream of a sound (and of consciousness).
The song then changes tempo and presents a rather stripped down, extremely knotty riff which is repeated a few times before we go back to the previous configuration. The song ends as suddenly as it begun. So far the first track is one of the least impressive. Even while it's extremely good and engaging, it sounds a bit like a leftout from The Black Flux. Things start getting much, much more interesting from track 2 progressively until the end of the album, which seems to end a tad too soon.
I won't do a track-by-track review since it goes against the customs of this site (and my own), so I'll move to an overall description of the sound, the structures, the soundscapes and the ambiance/spirit of the album, which are all extremely rich and at the same time extremely homogeneous.
The guitars tend to make use of a soft yet trembling distortion, kind of the way a guitar sounds when you plug it to an old radio. Play it nice and it'll have an almost clean amplification; play it harsh and it'll destroy your ears like a detuned AM station. The riffs have gotten more complex, even if it only shows at times. I'd say the level of complexity rose in the same way it did from Carheart to Black Flux. That is to say, whereas you might have been able to find slightly more normal or regular riffs or melodies on previous albums, especially the debut, there are basically zero of them here. Every time the guitars are heard (um, that would be kind of all the time), they're spewing strong, fast, complex dissonances which defy imagination and finger positioning. since the distortion is a bit softer than on previous albums, you can hear everything that is going on, and yet you can't make it logical in your head. Your brain tends to not accept such sounds, such chords and such riffs are physically possible to play in a guitar. And that's a good thing. The songs are immersed in audial mystery and twisted sounds come and go as fast as Czral's fingers can manage, which is pretty fast, leaving you bewildered and wanting more.
Another thing worth mentioning is the fact that experimentation, while an overused term perhaps, when it comes to this band, has found its way into the band's sound, as if they are now experimenting with their own already experimental sound. Perhaps that's not giving them enough credit. I think this is no experiment, I think this is now an established law of music. The riffs, apart from being chaotic and knotty as I've mentioned, present new shapes, in the form of the odd tremolo, arpeggio and plucking, all done, of course, in the usual inexplicably complex manner only Czral is truly familiar with. I know most of these elements can be found on their previous efforts, but they make a point for themselves in this release, taking up the spotlight whenever they show up. Point in case, Dead Cities Of Syria, the longest track and possibly one of the best, presents a very strange, waving riff in which, it would seem, two guitars play simultaneously the same passage but one of them is either out of tune or it's playing it one fret below. It's quite eerie and majestic.
This is a good time as any other to mention that one of the things that worried me while I expected this album to be released was the departure of good ol' Plenum, the man behind the insane and yet elegant basslines on their previous albums, as well as VBE. Could this Bjeima fellow be able to fit in such huge footsteps? Well that answer was pretty much answered when I investigated a little about him and found a solo project of him which was virtually a Virus/VBE tribute. That is a nice way of saying it was a complete ripoff. I've never heard in my life such a faithful imitation of anything. Of course this implies the man Can Play. So I guess the Dogs from Virus decided they would benefit more from keeping this character close to them. All of this is just a needlessly complex way of saying he plays the bass like a goddamn master and is almost as good as Plenum. Of course he would be, he obviously learned from him and now dedicates his life to imitate his style to the best of his abilities, which are rightfully impressive. The bass has a clean, full, thick and heavy sound which would usually fuck with the mix and the clearness of the notes, yet the basslines dance around, under and over the guitar as if they were feathers on a strong wind, gracefully drawing abstract, seismograph-like curvy lines in the sky, as if Bjeima was somehow able to translate automatic writing into music form, never missing the mark or playing an out-of-place note.
Drumming is perhaps the one element that remains unchanged from day one, yet that doesn't mean it's not just as amazing as the rest. It has a very clear sound, perhaps the snares are a bit too soft, but then again they'd probably break the flow of the songs instead of keeping it if they were any louder. It seamlessly fluctuates between soft jazzy passages, punky simplicity, tribal toms-galore, polyrhythmic mid-tempos, frantic but short bursts of aggressivity and disco tempos (yes, disco tempos), moving along the rest of the music and keeping it stable (or as stable as this erratic music can be, at least). Esso has a great instinct for drumming, which means he knows when to play it and when not to play it, therefore even though he could shower us with them, there are very little showoffs (which usually come in the form of great details and phrase connectors). Still, you can't help but to be impressed by his, let's say, modest dexterity.
While they were working on the album, Czral casually mentioned how he'd work a bit on improving/widening his singing abilities, and it truly shows. Whether it's by means of a widened vocal range or the intelligent and clever use of editing (like the aforementioned vocal tritone) and FX (some distorted, distant screams and echoing, windy backing vocals), Czral's voice carries quite a few surprises. His crooner style is much more vibrant and unfocused, which gives his voice a tone of desperation or madness, delivering equally desperate and/or mad lyrics while the dissonance explodes around it. At times he reaches lows and highs previously unexplored by his fluent, almost static voice which has now gained a vitality akin to that of his guitar.
Finally, there's quite a pleasant surprise on the last track, Call Of The Tuskers. None other than mister Garm of Ulver pays Virus a visit for the second time, the first one being on Carheart's Queen Of The Hi-Ace. This time he makes use of his extremely versatile vocal style, reminiscent of Ulver's Blood Inside or Arcturus' The Sham Mirrors. His voice is excellent and as good as ever, and I can't fucking wait for Ulver's next album. Anyway.
To sum things up, this is the third album from Norway's (and, in this humble reviewer's opinion, one of the world's) finest power trio, if we can call it that, and it's exactly what it was expected: A step forward, a fabulous upgrade from an already fascinating and increasingly complex back catalogue. Strictly new elements are rare, mostly hiding in the details, yet the arrangement itself, and the structures of the songs and the dynamism between the songs, makes for an excellent, fresh and enthralling listen.