Virus has always been a rather slippery proposition. Three albums in, and although the intentional nuttiness of Carheart has largely faded in favor of a thoroughly lived-in sort of avant-garde metal, let it be known: this is a fucking weird album. This ought to be little surprise, though, given that Virus springs from some of the same minds that brought you the all-around brilliant what-the-shit?-ness of Ved Buens Ende. And yet, it’s precisely because Virus is that utter rarity in music – a completely original sound – that its music is endlessly fascinating and non-ostentatiously inventive. The Agent That Shapes The Desert will burrow its way deep into your body, miming your heartbeats, your circadian rhythms, the deep marathon of neurons. You will think it has left you, but then you will find it there again.
The songwriting style throughout is of a piece with The Black Flux, although the songs are significantly more compact, and the guitars don’t hit with the same dark weight as on the previous album. Czral’s vocals retain the deep but blunted operatic scope of past albums, but throughout The Agent That Shapes The Desert his vocal lines are even more inextricably fused to the seasick rhythmic pulse of the music. The guitars are given a brittle twang which is initially off-putting, but which eventually becomes an indispensible component of the album’s unique sound. (See the almost breakdown-esque transition about halfway through “Red Desert Sand” for a prime example of this tonality.) The drumming throughout lends a sense of the jittery, angular thrum of post-punk, often playing a neat contrast with the smooth and extremely active bass, that so often-neglected instrument which ends up stealing much of the show. The title track opens the album, and wastes no time jogging in with its funky bass lead, shimmering along until shifting fluidly into a driving waltz time for the verse. Throughout most of the song, the guitars pepper the palette with jangly chords, leaving almost of all the momentum and melodic work to the bass, which is a refreshing arrangement.
The album is packed with quirky little flourishes, like the serpentine coda to “Continental Drift,” or the prominent hi-hat beat in “Chromium Sun,” which honestly gives the song the flavor of some deranged carnival disco. The vocals on “Where the Flame Resides” are occasionally doubled at a very odd harmonic interval, giving the song a rather lugubrious feel. The blurry, half-step churning of “Parched Rapids” is yet another woozy moment, proving that although the constituent pieces of this album are somewhat simple on the face of it, the aggregate effect is surprisingly disorienting. Maybe it’s that typical human tendency to search for an island of familiarity on which to beach the anxious weight of the new and startling, but I found myself hearing “Ace of Spades” in the opening to “Call of the Tuskers.” The melodic vocal turns that pop up around the 3:30 mark sound suspiciously like Ulver’s Kristoffer Rygg, but I don’t have any information to indicate if it’s a proper guest spot, or if Czral is channeling his inner Garm.
If you’ve yet to fall for the myriad charms of Virus, now’s as good a time as ever. Fans of Giant Squid, Arcturus, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Vulture Industries, and any other such dabblers on the dramatic edge of metal’s avant-garde will surely delight in unfolding this many-limbed creature’s secrets. Until then: Imagine steering a raft down a wide river. The current is swift and tireless, and yet, as you look behind you, you see that the earth is cracking and the river is being swallowed up and turned to a parched desert landscape just as soon as you’ve passed down each meter’s stream. Is the desert chasing you, or are you birthing it in your wake? Where are you when you are at the river’s end? What have you learned?