Even if each Virus release has moved ever further from the black metal that anchored the band’s innovative beginnings as Ved Buens Ende, it’s really only made more salient their utter originality. Virus’ unique sound has been described as avant-garde, post-black and progressive, with each of those qualifiers typically preceding the “metal” tag. Thing is, as central as metal is (or was) to the Virus identity, what they’ve come to offer is more a delirious contemplation of mundane life than the frostbitten nihilism normally associated with Norwegian metal. And, musically, their bendy jangly swirliness comes off as more like RIO for the Dali Cowboy Cult than black metal for the Norse Hordes. Regardless of how you define them, over sixteen years, four albums and an EP, there’s no denying that only Virus sounds like Virus.
On Memento Collider, as before, an awful lot of what Virus sounds like is embodied by founder, Carl-Michael Eide, more endearingly known as Czral. He handles all the most important leader-of-the-band type stuff, as well as vocals and guitars. While his guitar work is tiptop, rooted in weirdness defined by oddly shaped riffs and chords that split the consonant-dissonant difference, his vocals are the gears that make this wackadoodly machine hum. Delivered with a swooning crooning baritone that’s been favorably compared to Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, Czral sounds like a worn and nigh-on-given-up, cataracted street preacher giving voice to visions of Hell on Earth and grinning open-mouthed at our uncertainty as to whether his words lie closer to dissociated portents or some current nightmarish truth.
Here’s his words from the first stanza of album opener, “Afield”:
As we appease the wounded, shame is flickering in our fraudulent eyes/
And all the dream’s traces remain. Come find in the right light.
And from the last stanza of the closing track, “Phantom Oil Slick”:
Carried home by a wayward nature/
Racing through the dark, forging a path through the dense/
Melting into the texture like some empty and last thing/
Stone open up and let the grain in.
And of course, no words in-between make any more sense than those do, context be damned. And of course, that’s a good bit of the fun. How disappointing would it be for a band to push all the weirdo buttons musically, only to dish up some warmed over lyrical pablum to tell the tale? A lot disappointing, that’s how.
As unique as Virus is, there’s no denying their influences, either, which unsurprisingly come from all over the map from the lands of RIO, jazz, progressive pop and rock, punk and post-punk. While never going so far as to fly any one’s flag above the others, the most recognizable influence among metal fans is surely Voivod. In fact, that influence is kind of all over everything the band has ever done, though sometimes more obviously than others. Take “Rogue Fossil” (pronounced /’rog fuh-SILL/, apparently), for example:
That chorus riff motif is about as Voivod as any non-Voivod thing has ever been. And, besides the obvious awesomeness of the video art created by the ever-more-and-more present Costin Chioreanu, you may have noticed in that tune there (in a remarkable turn of events if you haven’t heard Virus before) the bass guitar is given ample room to range. As usual, charter member Plenum takes full advantage of his unusually wide slice of spotlight to walk, run and, depending on the song, dance frenetically. On “Rogue Fossil” he even gets to lead the riff parade, and his buoyant counterpoint on “Dripping Into Orbit” is a lesson in just how much body the bass can add to an already deeply textured song. And in case you’re convinced you’ve heard it all, in a few choice places, including on “Afield” and “Rogue Fossil”, Plenum and drummer Einz join each other on the lighted dance floor, hips jutting and fingers pointed upward in some demented disco dance; just one more example of Virus making something really cool out of what life and probability suggest oughtn’t even be tried.
Fitting all that weirdness into a package that someone might want to hear more than once is presumably just the sort of thing for which progressive music ought to strive, but defining “progressive” these days can be a tricky proposition. There’s just so much within it that fits the Prog mold but then folds in on and cannibalizes itself to become a convoluted opposite of what it purports to be. But progressive doesn’t have to mean noodly self-indulgence and ostentatious design. Virus is a great example of that notion and Memento Collider represents it well. Even casual listens will concede right away that Virus songs aren’t obviously complex in terms of structure or even the individual pieces within it. Rather, what progresses them outside the boundaries is the way pieces that shouldn’t go together get arranged so that they do go together, simultaneously at odds and in perfect synchrony. The urgent jazzy core of “Steamer” is a great example. The guitar, bass and drums all seem to do their own things at one moment only to merge seamlessly in the next, sometimes within the same measure. Then there’s the chorus, which doesn’t seem to know at all what the verses and bridges are going on about, ignoring the addled anxiety there to chime in with a cool comfortable Moog whistle alongside sad solace from Czral.
In fact, much of Memento Collider, like Virus more generally, is like this. Early listens paint a dark, dry, sparse place riddled with uneasy tilts and whirls that can make it hard to find your footing. But subsequent listens reveal those bits of color and texture to differentiate this moment from that, the way an ornately decorated room might reveal its prizes as your eyes adjust to the darkness. Sometimes it’s background vocal ooo’s and aah’s and oowah’s, sometimes spacey Moog and other keyboard effects, like what sounds like a distant piano that someone’s just pounding mercilessly one slow fist drop at a time. Still other times it’s strange percussive sounds that might be wooden blocks or xylophone(?) or even the vague hissing of what might be insects. Where a lot of bands tend to rely on effects and accoutrement to garnish an otherwise ho hum sound, Virus is exceedingly selective, picking just the right touch to flesh out each song’s story, as cryptic as it may be, and this makes for a refreshingly fully realized experience of the music.
Memento Collider, in the end, is the same ol’ Virus. The same ol’ Virus, though, means a whole lot of fun and familiar wackiness that likes to spiral outward with successive listens to reveal treasures within its furrows. And this particular Virus is packed to the rim with those little, uh… mementos… and jostles and tosses them around like some sort of… um… collid- Ugh. I really don’t have a clue as to what a memento collider could be. But also I kind of love that I don’t, because it’s one more layer of fucks gloriously ungiven by a band that has come to define itself by being nearly indefinable.