• Virus Syndicate - The Work-Related Illness

    Reviewed by Sarah Zachrich (Splendid Zine)

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

    Music has an amazing, Gremlin-like ability to spawn subgenres. Remember when UK garage was the next hot sound from over the pond? It never quite caught on here -- we Yanks were too busy playing with our 505s to pay much attention -- but the genre is currently in the midst of its sellout burnout. From its ashes has sprung Grime, a title that's rather controversial (critics complain that it stereotypes its often poor and minority purveyors) and sort of lame, but apparently here to stay, at least until BBC Radio 1 picks it up and the early adopters move on to something else.

    Virus Syndicate (whose producer Mark One's part in the Rephlex comp Grime has been turning heads) seem to be one of Manchester's higher-profile representatives of the genre. In their music, 2Step's fractured beats and bowel-rattling bass combine with an aesthetic that's more informed by hip hop than soul (with an appropriately darker outlook) to create a menacing midtempo vibe. The thick accents of a trio of MCs (Nika D, Goldfinger and JSD) give The Work Related Illness the quality of an Irvine Welsh novel set further south; the record's loose narrative also contributes to that impression. The songs speak with the voices of profoundly fucked-up characters. Self-absorbed, devoid of moral compass and just out to get theirs, these thoroughly working-class protagonists slog through their days drinking ("Wasted"), fucking ("Girls") and slinging dope ("Clockwork"). The stories are cartoonishly exaggerated, with all the authenticity of gangsta rap (especially given the inclusion of stagey cautionary tales such as "Nadine", about a cute former classmate gone crack whore).

    The self-conscious "street"-iness of Virus Syndicate's rhymes might be annoying if they weren't so cleverly executed. The MCs' styles follow a similar template (rapid-fire, aggressive and with wildly varied rhythms) but they've each got their own distinct sound and personality. Similarly, Virus Syndicate's subject matter doesn't fall far from gangsta rap's usual concerns (money, violence, hoez, getting fucked up, rivalry between MCs, and society's revilement of their lifestyle), but the flair -- and often humor -- with which these well-worn topics are packaged gives them a new lease on life. "Girls" is a rare low point, indulging in the kind of vitriolic misogyny ("I should cut you with a razor and cover you in salt") that assholes like to pass off as a joke. It's not a funny one. But then, VS aren't all hearts and flowers with their own sex, either; threats and depictions of violence are plentiful, graphic and creative. All the while, Mark One's syncopated, vaguely unsettling beats percolate under great oozing slabs of bass and cunningly chopped-up samples pulled out of everything from '80s techno to Kill Bill and Danny Elfman's Tim Burton movie scores. Opener "Slow Down" is an ominous track from both a musical and lyrical point of view, with apocalyptic choir and string samples and lines like "I'm warning you / Trust me, they'll be mourning you." Things aren't uniformly dreary, though, as demonstrated by the jaunty horn samples in "Clockwork" and "Wasted"'s carefree happy-drunk chaos.

    You have to wonder where Virus Syndicate has to go from here; it seems like they've already covered all their topical bases, and the lifespan of a group whose style depends on maintaining a gritty keepin'-it-real persona is typically short (whether it's because their success raises them from the underclass or they were never in it). Still, The Work Related Illness is one of the more compelling albums to come across the desk lately... and these guys seem like they have more than enough talent to branch out on the follow-up.

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