• Virus Syndicate - The Work-Related Illness

    Reviewed by Nick Edwards (Gutterbreakz)

    <b> Virus Syndicate </b> - The Work-Related Illness

    Two big vocal-grime albums hitting the streets this month, both featuring humorous cartoon sleeve designs, plenty of attitude and showcasing the cream of North and South talent.

    First up, straight outta Manchester, it's the much anticipated Virus Syndicate long-player "The Work Related Illness". The fact that all production is handled by Mark One will be your guarantee of musical quality here, and Mark totally delivers with a brutal series of beats and atmospheres that build on the outstanding work he did on "One Way" last year.
    Unlike the often schizophrenic approach of his more low-profile twelve inchers, here his focus is locked on (in)tense half-step riddims and lo-end pressure combined with insidious eastern melodies and extremely effective orchestral inflections - most notably on "Taxman" which simply sounds gigantic with it's soaring woodwind and string section arrangements. Anyone who's been enjoying the old"Anastasia" MP3 at the Gutterbox will appreciate how great orchestral elements can sound when used in dance music, and on this track Mark reveals yet another spin on that concept that's like the Grime equivalent of Venetian Snares' latest direction. More shit like this please, sir!!
    Another eye-opener is "Clockwork", which features jaunty samples of jazz horns which, musically speaking, provides some light relief from all the overpowering grimness. A brave move, and a clear sign that Mark is willing to push his sound into unexpected territory, although for me it's probably the weakest track.
    But what of the MCs? Whilst they provided effective vocal interjections on "One Way", I was a bit worried that a whole album of rhymes would too distracting for someone like me who wants to listen intently to Mark's production skillz. But there's no denying that JSD, Goldfinger and Nika D have enough magnetic 'star' quality to ride the beats and totally draw you into their seedy little gangsta soap opera.
    Some of the lyrics really are a bit nasty, especially the rampant misogyny of "Girls" which, with it's list of previous girlfriend's names, strikes me as the evil alternative to the saccharine pop-whimsy of The Beautiful South's "Song For Whoever". I mean, okay lads, so you've been stung by a few bad relationships but I really don't think the line "cut you with a razor and cover you in salt" is a very positive solution to the problem, do you? To be fair, I think the guys are only putting on a personae here, and I can't believe they've really done all the unpleasant things they describe on the album, otherwise they'd be in prison or dead by now. Plus I've heard rumours of middle-class origins, so I reckon this is more a commentary on the gangsta life, rather than the real deal. I could be wrong of course, and maybe they'll be coming to pay me a visit to prove how hard they really are (please don't give 'em my address, Mike!!). Besides, on "Throwing In the Towel", they drop the violent facade and reveal a relatively sensitive, intelligent view of relationship trouble. The opening lines "I spent years being single, a shy guy I didn't like to mingle, quiet and simple keepin' it low key, and wait till the woman approached me" scores high for honesty and I'm sure there's a few 'late starters' out there who can empathise with those words. Overall, I'm impressed by their willingness to confront personal politics rather than just going for the standard bluster of 'my crew's better than yours', etc and I really like all the little staged conversations they have at the start of the tracks. Then of course there's "Wasted", a paean to the joys of getting pissed/stoned/mashed which never fails to raise a smile 'round here.
    The way they've cleverly structured the rhymes with catchy half-sung choruses is interesting too - it gives the music an accessibility that could almost crossover as pop. Because I was mainly caning this album back in Jan/Feb it has a bit of a wintry feel for me, yet for the kidz it could be this years' surprise summer hit. Get it in the shops with a 'parental advisory - explicit lyrics' sticker and get it banned on Radio 1 and watch those sales figures go ballistic! It's about time Planet Mu had a big-selling controversial record and I reckon this one could be it, with the right marketing. But maybe I'm just used to it - perhaps this shit still sounds fucking unlistenable to your average Eminem fan. But if Dizzie can do it....?

    Speaking of Dizzie, I think it's to his eternal credit that he's managed to carve a fairly high-profile career without compromising his music much. Yet his one-time mentor Wiley is still having problems getting the balance right. For me his best work lies on all those small-run twelve-inchers , tracks like "Ground Zero", "Icepole" and of course "Eskimo" - the (eski) beats that defined the new Grime sound in 2003. Of course it's important that he and his crew develop their sound, but the apparent move towards a more conventional r'n'b/hip-hop vibe has been worrying me. Having followed the Dissensus thread on the new Roll Deep album "In At The Deep End", it appears that I'm not alone in that view. I haven't actually heard the whole album yet, so please don't take this as a proper review, but I did pick-up the 12" vinyl sampler recently featuring four tracks from the album plus two instrumental versions, and I'm really enjoying it! On the evidence of "When I'm 'Ere" (produced by Danny Weed) any accusations of sell-out are off the mark. This is some tuff grimey shit! Similarly, the Wiley-produced "Heat Up" features a hard stripped-down riddim with deep square-wave undulations that sounds pretty damn hardcore to these ears, although like some of the others it does seem to be obsessed with accordion sounds, especially on the instrumental dub.
    My favourite though is "Show You", featuring a deep half-step groove, ecstatic, almost ravey female vocal samples and a relentless flow of rhymes that's been on repeat play at Gutterbreakz HQ this week. Admittedly "People Don't Know" does veer a little too close to r'nb blandness for me, but maybe they just picked all the best tracks for this EP? Is the rest of the album all filler? I think I'll wait till I've gauged a few more reactions before investing in the full release, although I heard "Shake A Leg" on the radio and that sounded really weird in a sort of calypso- party-vibe sort of way...
    Available here.

    posted by Gutta

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