Virulence - If This Isn't a Dream... 1985-1989 (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review


If This Isn't a Dream... 1985-1989 (2010)

Southern Lord

In a different life, stoner rock outfit Fu Manchu was known as Virulence, a group of Black Flag enthusiasts looking to bring hardcore to its technical breaking point. Defunct for over 20 years, Virulence finally has something resembling a career retrospective with If This Isn't a Dream... 1985-1989. Crammed to capacity (79 minutes), the disc presents the band's recorded output coupled with a bevy of live tracks. Given its length, the material can be a challenge to get through at times, but that was kind of the point: Virulence challenged conventions on what constituted hardcore, much like their heroes in Black Flag did.

Take My War, sprinkle in some Melvins, triple the song lengths, and you'll get an idea of what Virulence sounded like. Stylistically, a lot of what they did was in keeping with the SST hardcore sound. It sounds like Greg Ginn himself is playing guitar, for good and bad. Yet the band's rhythms possess a certain prog rock quality without actually being prog. There are no wind chime solos, no lyrics about elves. If Virulence formed today, they'd probably be called post-rock, or perhaps post-hardcore. I'm not saying they sound like Slint, but they certainly overlap.

The first eight tracks are a gauntlet of punishing guitars and, occasionally, screams. Per the liner notes, the band gradually phased vocals out of their repertoire. As the songs became more technical, the members realized that none of them could sing and play at the same time. Their ideas exceeded their ability, but they formed a new sound all the same.

But this is still rooted in hardcore, which means underground, which means that the live recordings are raw, perhaps too raw to warrant much attention beyond one or two listens. The songs become more traditionally '80s hardcore near the end of the disc, which coincidentally features the group's earliest material. Perhaps best typified by a cover of Void's "My Rules," these songs are more frenetic and brief. They're more accessible at first, but what Virulence became later on is what will stay with listeners. Still, taken as a whole, Dream is more cohesive than one would think. Punk was supposed to reset rock ‘n' roll after prog's self-indulgence, but Virulence in turn found a way to make punk technical without coming off as masturbatory or irrelevant.