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Virus - The Agent That Shapes The Desert - 95%

Avestriel, February 21st, 2011

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.

Moving on...

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.