Some bands are a rare treat to witness live, and the Norwegian post-metal giants Virus (not to be confused with at least 20+ other groups sharing the same name) is definitely one of them. Alongside with Grave Pleasures, the group warmed up Blowup That Gramophone’s Helsinki-based Blowup (Vol. 3) festival extravaganza, which brings experimental and marginal heavy music – ranging everything from doom to ritualistic mantras – with their own club gig at Kuudes Linja.
Music-wise it was a night of two somewhat different bands: the 5-piece Finnish post-punk act Grave Pleasures (formerly known as Beastmilk) took the stage first and went straight into action. They’ve been reviving the new wave musical era since 2010 and have released four full-length albums, including this year’s fantastically apocalyptic “Motherblood”. Grave Pleasures’ British front man Khvost (Mat McNerney) is a well-known musician who has his fingers in many pies. Including being the founder of “psychedelic forest rock group” Hexvessel, singing in the past for Dødheimsgard and also maintaining a close alliance with Virus, being responsible for some of their lyrics.
Their flashy and entertaining opening act was a well-selected hors d’œuvre before the actual main course, especially since the latter required a bigger dose of absorption. Grave Pleasures is clearly a well-thought-out ensemble with a great deal of detail going into their visual antics – and overall presentation. It’s a love affair for the golden era of late 1970s to the mid-1980s murky punk rock; a respectful kindship with legendary bands such as Joy Division, Bauhaus, Echo & the Bunnymen and Killing Joke. They presented a candid, yet subdued, stage presence which felt more matured than many of their colleagues in the goth-rock scene. A solid show featuring great guitar work laced in vintage echo, steamrolling ambiance and a steady, arena rock-level certitude, accompanied by Khvost’s Ian Curtis-like desolate vocals. It’s all entertaining nostalgia, with just the right amount of fresh and contemporary elements attached to it.
Once Grave Pleasures had finished their romanticized declaration of the End Times, it was Virus’ turn to invite the audience into their atypical crusade against the grain, and to tear down every last nook and cranny of a conventionally structural approach to heavy music.
Within seconds, the room was filled with uneasy – yet fascinating – chords of, well, discord. Virus plays with very little harmony between the notes and their (seemingly) chaotic output might take a while for many listeners to get used to – but then again, this is also the hook that reels in the right kind of listener out from the sea of conformity. It’s is like a big hairy beast inviting you to pet its fur the wrong way.
Virus’ chords sound like something they’re discovering for the first time themselves as they go, but naturally this is just an illusion the group shrouds upon the unsuspecting listener. It’s difficult to say if Virus is more impressive for the first-time listener or for a fan who’s memorized every chapter by heart in their tale of dissonance. It all sounds like a much darker and sinister grandchild of the prog-rock legend King Crimson – with sudden changes in tempo and melody midsong – while at the same time managing to flirt with black metal-influenced concepts in a very intoxicating and hypnotic way, which is seemingly going nowhere, but still knows exactly where it is at all times. No boundaries, no barriers.
One could easily have similar vibes when listening to a free jazz concert or an improvised progressive jam, but eventually realizing that it’s all a meditated and rehearsed exercise in complexity and endurance. This kind of unorthodox approach always brings to mind a famous quote from Miles Davis: “Don’t play what’s there; play what’s not there.”
Virus’ leading force is Czral (Carl-Michael Eide, vocals/guitar); a multi-instrumentalist, known for being the session drummer for Dimmu Borgir in the late 90’s and also for his affiliation with hard-hitting names such as Dødheimsgard, Satyricon, Ulver and Infernö. Other members are Plenum (Petter Berntsen, bass) and Esso (Einar Sjurso, drums).
About 12 years ago Czral fell from a four-story building and was hospitalized for months and lost the use of his feet because of the accident. He is not sadly able to play drums anymore, which used to be his main instrument, but can still perform as a vocalist, guitarist and bassist by remaining seated during the show – and what an intense and otherworldly show it was!
Czral kept the engine running with a rebellious guitar assault against power chords, along with his nightmarish crooning baritone vocals, sounding at times like Peter Murphy of Bauhaus. Their formula was delightfully refreshing, and rather than witnessing all the typical clichés of a progressive band pulling off a 10-20(+) minute songs, deliberately making the audience feel lost because of the sheer length of the songs alone, Virus felt much more focused, sharp and inviting, with a more balanced and condensed set list that one typically gets to hear in an avant-garde concert. They’re letting the music speak for itself without the need for extra bells and whistles.
The set included 11 songs, evenly built from all of their albums, starting the show with “As Virulent As You” and ending it with an encore of “Investigator”. Seemingly the most crowd-pleasing moment came close to the end with “Phantom Oil Slick” from the album “Memento Collider”.
By knowing that Grave Pleasures and Virus have a close relationship with each other, the whole night felt like a one big family gathering to perform gloomy music for friends, family and fans alike, under one big roof.
Truly a night to remember!