“Daddy? What’s a memento collider?”
“Well, princess, a memento collider is a great big machine. They use it to take all the world’s most precious things—pictures, artwork, dream journals, Hallmark cards and kitty memes—and smash them together at near-light speeds.”
“Why do they smash things together, Daddy?”
“Because, pumpkin, they’re looking for the human soul.”
“Did they ever find the soul?”
“No. But they did find . . . something . . .”
“What did they find?”
“They found the skronk particle.”
“What does it do, Daddy?”
“If you have to ask that, munchkin, you will never fucking SKRONK.”
The above father-daughter heart-to-heart (totally never happened) perfectly illustrates a few things about the new album by avant-garde metall-ish rock veterans Virus. Firstly, Memento Collider is mysterious. Secondly, it is almost scientific in its rigor. And thirdly—it skronks!
But not in a progressive death metal way. It skronks the way Virus has always skronked: like a mutoid Decepticon with mirror-balls for eyes, tearing down a corpse-strewn highway at the end of Time. Which is to say that Virus is and always has been road music. It is difficult to listen to any of their albums while sitting on your couch or in your cubicle at work, because you will inevitably begin jerking an invisible steering wheel and grinding phantom gears, shouting out an imaginary window to equally imaginary drivers to get the [insert expletive of choice] out of your way. Whether you are drifting trancelike across some crepuscular metropolis or coasting through red desert dust at dawn, there is something somewhere in the Virus catalogue to keep you company.
If you are familiar with any of the band’s previous albums, you know precisely what kind of ride you are in for. But if not, how about some history? It all started with Carheart (2003)—a nice enough debut, but for some reason one which never fully clicked with me. Maybe the whole thing was just too upbeat. Too scattered. Maybe I was losing interest in the Norwegian avant-garde. Album #2, The Black Flux (2008), was an unexpected improvement. They took the basic instrumental rapport achieved on Carheart and evolved it by leaps and bounds. The Black Flux is a suffocating album, thick with gloom and dissonance: it sounds like a noxious black cloud emitted by a massive machine that eats atom bombs for breakfast. It is at once experimental and amazingly cohesive. I still return to it with regularity. Next came The Agent that Shapes the Desert (2011), which was perhaps just as good as The Black Flux, but it suffered from following too closely on the heels of its predecessor. It dialed back on some of the dissonance and dark haze in favor of a clearer, more arid atmosphere. But it just wasn’t enough of a leap forward to stand out.
So, does Virus leap forward once more with Memento Collider? Not really. It may be that there are no great improvements to be made to their sound. But with a sound as singular and inimitable as this, how much evolution do we really require? The fact is that to this day no one sounds like Virus. Every one of its members brings something so distinctive to the mix that to try to reverse engineer the design would end in laughable failure and, hopefully, tears. Over Memento Collider‘s six tracks, band-leader Czral (Carl-Michael Eide) treats us to the leisurely strumming of hideous chords while bassist Plenum (Petter Berntsen) busily plucks out eerie scales, all against the backdrop of drummer Einz’s (Einar Sjursø) bewitchingly danceable disco-prog beats. Czral is less a vocalist than an orator. With a deranged sense of melodrama, bullhorn in hand, he reads aloud to us from what might as well be a book of poems written by a vagabond living in the shadow of Chernobyl. I’m convinced that Czral is the only human who can “sing” this way and not sound like a total goofball. However you feel about his voice, his lyrics are undeniably vivid and disturbed. His guitar tone is all his own as well: it sounds like he’s playing on pieces of an incinerated motorcycle strung with rusty piano wire; one imagines the dense and unlikely chords he conjures from this contraption as the results of complex geometrical proofs. His long-time co-pilot Einz is more of a pocket drummer than a virtuoso—and yet there are so many moving parts to his beats that you cannot tune him out. He is a master of syncopation, switching up rectilinear grooves like clockwork. And for the bass nerds among you, just lay down and die as Plenum rides that bass like he’s speeding through walking jazz lines on an upright.
Where Memento Collider differentiates itself is in an overall sense of space between the instruments. Czral’s complicated guitar work is less busy this time around, freeing up your ears to hone in on what the bass and drums are up to. Compositionally, too, the band pulls over every once in a while to let the engine cool, as in the slow, forebodingly whispered mid-section to opener “Afield,” or the pensive collapse that divides closer “Phantom Oil Slick.” Czral even attempts to carry a tune once or twice, which I guess is something.
Czral was involved in the reinventing of the wheel twice: first with Ved Buens Ende, again with the birth of Virus. Virus do not reinvent the wheel a third time with Memento Collider, but they certainly do refine it: they make it not only practical but also beautiful. I would like to see them do something boldly unexpected again—but I also feel that I have no right to ask for such a thing. Given that I wasn’t even expecting them to make another album, I’m just going to shut up now and enjoy the hecking heck out of this one.
4 out of 5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell