Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Univers Zero - 1977 - Univers Zero

Univers Zero
Univers Zero (1313)

01. Ronde (14:45)
02. Carabosse (3:40)
03. Docteur Petiot (7:25)
04. Malaise (7:42)
05. Complainte (3:18)

- Michel Berckmans / bassoon
- Daniel Denis / percussion
- Marcel Dufrane / violin
- Christian Genet / bass
- Patrick Hanappier / violin, viola, pocket cello
- Emmanuel Nicaise / harmonium, spinet
- Roger Trigaux / guitar

With a musical vision that is at the same time dark and ominous, yet stylish and sophisticated, UNIVERS ZERO are one of the most unique and influential bands ever to be associated with progressive rock, and the undisputed creators of the genre known as 'chamber rock'. Getting their inspiration from such diverse sources as rock, jazz, European folk and classical music (both ancient and modern), they have forged a distinctive sound that has received widespread critical acclaim, as well as influencing a vast number of contemporary avant-garde bands and ensembles.

Hailing from Belgium, the band was formed in 1973 by drummer Daniel DENIS and trumpeter Claude Deron, with the original name of Necronomicon - though this was changed to UNIVERS ZERO (after a book by Belgian novelist Jacques Sternberg) in 1974. At the time, their music was strongly influenced by electric jazz, though this changed when Michel Berckmans (reeds) joined the band. Their self-titled debut album (also known as "1313"), composed by DENIS and guitarist Roger Trigaux, was released in 1977 as a limited edition, and soon afterwards reissued by Atem, a label specialized in avant-garde music. The following year, UNIVERS ZERO joined four other groups from different countries (HENRY COW, STORMY SIX, ETRON FOU LELOUBLAN and SAMLA MAMMAS MANNA) to set up the movement known as "Rock in Opposition" (RIO).

Shortly after the release of their second album, "Heresie" (1979), Trigaux left UNIVERS ZERO to form his own band, PRESENT. Then keyboardist Andy Kirk joined the band, and began to contribute his own compositions. The new line-up soon embarked on a tour of France, Yugoslavia, Switzerland and the Netherlands. After the recording of their third album, "Ceux du Dehors" (1981), which featured only a portion of the material the band had composed in that period of time, UNIVERS ZERO ground to a temporary halt because of financial problems, and only resumed their touring activity after several months, with a revamped line-up (including Dirk Descheemaeker on clarinet, and Alan Ward on violin). Their heavy touring schedule in 1981-82, as well as other stresses, led to Kirk's leaving the band in 1983, and yet another line-up change, with Jean-Luc Plouvier (keyboards) and André Mergenthaler (cello) joining, as well as the return of bassist Christian Genet. This version of UNIVERS ZERO played concerts in France, Germany and Belgium, prior to the release of their fifth studio album, "UZED" (1984), considered by many as their masterpiece.

After that, more line-up changes occurred, with Mergenthaler leaving to join French outfit ART ZOYD, and former members Andy Kirk and Patrick Hanappier (violin) returning to the fold, together with a new guitarist, Michel Delory. UNIVERS ZERO; now a seven-piece, participated in a number of prestigious events in 1985 and 1986 (notably the Frankfurt Jazz Festival), performing DENIS' newest compositions, as well as several unrecorded material written by Kirk in 1981-83. In the summer of 1986, this line-up went into the studio to record the band's sixth album, "Heatwave", released in the early months of the following year by US-based label Cuneiform Records. However, in spite of the positive feedback received by the disc, DENIS had already decided to dissolve the band, frustrated by the minimal sales and the lack of opportunities for live performances. The two final line-ups of UNIVERS ZERO's early years are documented by the live album "Relaps", released by Cuneiform in 2009.

After the band's demise, Daniel DENIS worked as a solo artist, releasing two albums of new compositions, "Sirius and the Ghost" (1991) and "Les Eaux Troubles" (1993) on the Cuneiform label, which also began to reissue UNIVERS ZERO's entire back catalogue. He also joined ART ZOYD for a period of seven years. However, the worldwide success of those reissues convinced DENIS to resurrect the band, both as a live and a recording project, at the end of the 1990s. At first UNIVERS ZERO got back together to play a one-off concert at the Festival des Musiques Actuelles at Victoriaville (Canada) in 1997 - with a line-up that included Andy Kirk and Guy Segers. Then, the following year, DENIS and Michel Berckmans reunited, and, with the help of a number of guest musicians (including some former band members), produced four studio albums: "The Hard Quest" (1999), "Rhythmix" (2002), "Implosion" (2004), and "Clivages" (2009), all released on Cuneiform - as well as a live album, "Live!" (2006), and the above-mentioned "Relaps", featuring previously-unreleased archival material.

What a slap in the face Univers Zero gives you in terms of an introduction to their music. I cannot think of one group that dared so much at once in their debut album as Univers Zero did at the time, bar some other RIO outfits. Mostly an acoustic band (bar the bass and some of Trigaux’s guitars), the music coming out here is a cross of Zappa (Uncle Meat), meeting Henry Cow, Bela Bartok or Charles Ives, yet it has a distinct rock flavour, but maybe not in a widely-accepted manner. Thev music is anything but light hearted, rather sombre and oppressive always flirting with dissonances, but never going over the top with them (as was frequently the case with Henry Cow). If I can be so nadve as to remind you that Univers Zero is one of the six signataires of the Rock In Opposition chart, you might just understand that Univers Zero is as much about their music as they are about aesthetics of their music. For this debut album, Univers Zero is a septet and the huge majority of instrument used are of the classical persuasion.

It is of course never easy to describe such difficult music, with either words or images, but the acoustic world that Univers Zero is presenting us is a dark, nightly, rather solemn and sinister underworld made of ambiances and angst of finding sheer horror round the street corner in London’s smog late nineteenth century. The 14-min+ Ronde is a wild opener, with the violin taking first role, while the much shorter Carabosse (after the fairy-witch) is more in the space of Berckmans’ bassoon while Daniel Denis’ amazing and inventive drumming and percussions rules the backtracks.

If the first side of the vinyl was mostly Daniel Denis’ works, the second side will be Roger Trigaux’s oeuvre. Not that good old Roger’s “songwriting” is any lighter than Daniel’s, far from it, but his music is clearly more rhythmic and repetitive. As on the previous side, the music hovers between Stravinsky and Balkanic oriented “folk-classical” music with some strong Magma influencers (Denis did play for the group and remains nowadays a friend of the Vander tribe) and represents one of the best example of chamber rock. In some ways their music can be likened to early Gryphon (the acoustic and instrumental nature of the music), but UZ is nothing medieval.

Please note that Univers Zero’s music is not easily accessible to the average Joe and therefore cannot be easily recommended to everyone. But in their genre, this group represents peak of what can be done in that kind of music. And this is only their first album of a lenghty career. Certainly a more influential band than a popular one, Univers Zero is one of the gardians of the progressive music’s integrity.

1 comment: