Virus - The Agent that Shapes the Desert
Duplicate Records
Avant-garde rock/metal
9 songs (43:10)
Release year: 2011
Virus, Duplicate Records
Reviewed by Charles
Virus is a project with such a weird sound that it seems strange to report that its new release is remarkably similar to its last one. The Black Flux, as my colleague James wrote at the time, was a bizarre album, hinting at an exploratory spirit that never quite stretched itself enough. The result was something that ended up feeling, in his words, ‘a bit dull’. He speculated that there could be a sort of Jazz Odyssey in the band waiting to explode in a display of rhythmic experimentation and flamboyant soloing, but The Agent that Shapes the Desert seems to diminish that possibility further, if it was ever there. This is very much a continued exploration of a sound which was already polished on The Black Flux, and as such is slightly frustrating to listen to, feeling like the band has got less experimental since the first record, Carheart.

Let’s not be too negative. We are, after all, dealing with surely one of the rock world’s quirkiest, most distinctive acts, and this album represents, if not a stylistic progression, probably an improvement. For the uninitiated, Virus tracks are like surreal but tightly-composed pieces of avant-rock. Loping basslines that leap ably up and down the frets collide with dissonant, janglingly hyperactive guitar lines and flashy drumming that seems to skip from post-punk beats to latin to anything in between. The makes for a sound with great depth and volatile fluidity, crowned by Carl-Michael Eide’s vocals which are often theatrical enough to give his band a flamboyant, tongue-in-cheek feel.

These elements together can sound brilliant. On this album, interestingly enough, the best moments are often those occasions where they are able assume a more upbeat form than they were allowed to on The Black Flux. Chromium Sun is an infectious fusion in which the high-energy dancefloor hi-hat of the percussion contrasts wildly with the tangled Voivod-ian guitar lines, with lyrics hallucinogenic enough to make everything fit together into a curious dream-jam. Continental Drift has a steamy, almost swung feel, again enhanced by the contrast between the maddening guitar and vocal gestures and the endlessly intelligent, ever-shifting percussion. And if there is a substantial difference between this and The Black Flux, it lies in the extra energy that these sorts of juxtapositions generate. On the last record, the band seemed more focused on the darker capacities of this same sound. But here the drumming often seems to want to put a catchy, almost disco-like spring in the step.

Still it suffers from a familiar problem. The feeling that the tracks here are coalescing around a certain formula never really dissipates. The Dead Cities of Syria is a distinctive highpoint, for example, not because it deviates from the familiar template of woozy guitar-drum interplay and jaunty triple-time tempos, but because this sound is suddenly given a darker spin by Eide’s dolorous, moaning vocals. Where the Flame Resides is the only true outlier; a sinisterly effective wash of ticking-clock drumming and eerie, sustained tones.

For those that were left gasping for more at the end of The Black Flux, The Agent that Shapes the Desert is essential listening, building on that sound with energy and finesse. For this reason, it holds the attention better than its predecessor. Nonetheless there remains a gap between the invention in the sound itself, and the relative conservatism with which Virus progress from song to song and album to album.

Killing Songs :
Continental Drift, Dead Cities of Syria, Where the Flame Resides
Charles quoted 80 / 100
Other albums by Virus that we have reviewed:
Virus - The Black Flux reviewed by James and quoted 73 / 100
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