[ SHORT REVIEWS | DETAILED REVIEWS
(66:01, Cuneiform Records)
TRACK LIST: 1. Ronde 15:08 2. Carabosse 3:41 3. Docteur Petiot 7:32 4. Malaise 7:52 5. Complainte 3:21 6. La Faulx Live 28:07 LINEUP: Daniel Denis – drums Roger Trigaux – guitars Michel Berkmans – bassoon, oboe Patrick Hanappier – violin, viola, pocket cello Emmanuel Nicaise – harmonium, spinet Christian Genet – bass With: Guy Segers – bass; vocals (6)
Prolusion. I doubt there is anyone else among the true, both open-minded and self-respectable, prog heads whose CD collection contains no one album by Belgium’s UNIVERS ZERO, the leading as well as the most fruitful (at least counting Present, its – nearly in all senses – kindred group, featuring a lot of the same musicians, Daniel Denis included) Rock-In-Opposition act, the founders of the only admitted national genre school, the Belgian one. Besides, I’m not even sure whether the living legend needs another introduction to its work or another review of its debut outing, either, so I have no other choice :-) but to follow one Russian proverb which says: “Repetition is the study’s mother”. The bandleader, drummer and composer extraordinaire, Daniel Denis was equally inspired by progressive rock and modern classical music avant-gardes, such as King Crimson, Soft Machine, Magma, Frank Zappa, Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok, when he formed Univers Zero back in 1973, though I suppose Arnold Schoenberg’s Dodecaphony was also familiar to him, already then, and not through the hearsay. Recorded during three days (sic!), the ensemble’s self-titled debut LP (“UZ” hereinafter) saw the light of day in September 1977, but it took years for many to realize all the significance of this event. I don’t know whether this CD is the first re-release of “UZ” (just for instance, the band’s sophomore outing, “Heresie”, was for the first time reissued in 1991, by the same Cuneiform label), but what I can tell you with confidence is that it has been re-mastered from the analog master tapes and features the original ‘vinyl’ artwork. For the curious: all the Univers Zero albums that I have heard are listed and rated here.
Analysis. Although it was formed by musicians the majority of whom came from jazz outfits, Univers Zero is the most classically-inspired RIO band, their debut, in turn, being their most classical-sounding creation, with a rather indistinct rock component and a very strong chamber one instead. Unlike “Heresie”, with its sinister, ghastly psychedelic music, or the more rock-oriented, often fast and frenetic “Ceux du Dehors” and “UZed”, “UZ” is a comparatively calm and warm musical entity with a gothic rather than an overtly dark atmosphere, and is easier comprehensible than any of the ensemble’s other classic recordings, meaning all the said ones as well as “Heatwave”, no matter that the latter is marked by a more modern approach. Though both cohesive and mesmerizing, “UZ” is nevertheless a highly adventurous musical affair, demanding full concentration from listeners before allowing them to enter what then comes across as another dimension filled with some unearthly beauty, where the dissonances form a perfect harmony and the crossing parallels float about like those in Lobatchevsky’s post-Euclidean geometry. Changing their internal melodic patterns as well as overall outlines in a highly sophisticated manner, all the tracks here stand out for their complex arrangements, abounding in angular, highly intricate meter shifts, with – very much like in classical music – each of the instruments involved playing its own, specific, part, and a prominent role being given to the chamber ones. Of the six tracks available on this particular edition of “UZ”, the first three, Ronde, Carabosse and Complainte, and also the last one, La Faulx, are written by Daniel Denis, while the two core pieces, Docteur Petiot and Malaise, come from Roger Trigaux’s pen. The drummer’s compositions are for the most part basically slow, revealing more textural than dynamic contrasts. Save La Faulx (to be described separately), all of them are full of sorrow, painting a picture of an old, little isolated chapel in the night accompanied by withered trees, and a cold moon sometimes illuminates this mysterious landscape from above a cloudy sky, though (the aptly titled) Complainte can wholly be perceived as an elegy as well. While also structurally ranging from relatively transparent to very dense, as Daniel’s compositions do, Roger’s pieces are rarely slow-paced, though, and are richer in sudden shifts in direction and theme, their main emotional message bringing to mind a sharp sensation of disturbance-bordering-on-panic, particularly frequently so on the third track. Titled Docteur Petiot, it refers us to a real historical personage who, during the World War II, defamed himself by his sadistic experiments on the citizens of Belgium which was then occupied by the Nazi Germany. Originally “Side A” of the band’s second LP, La Faulx is their longest track ever and its live version presented here is musically almost not dissimilar to its studio counterpart. Featuring Guy Segers on bass and vocals, this is one of the most doom-laden and most sinister compositions of all times, including modern extreme Metal in any of its manifestations. A very dark atmosphere full of mystical phobias overwhelms everything around here, even hopelessness in the face of the everlasting flight of life (to you know where), depicting nothing other than our reality, just at a somewhat specific angle. Almost all over the first third of the epic Guy steadily transforms his delivery: from a dark, yet still traditional, singing into something halfway between a brutal roar and a sepulchral voice. It’s precisely on La Faulx where the real roots of what will later be labeled as death-ish vocals are pioneered, so I wonder why Celtic Frost’s front-man Thomas Gabriel and (the late) Chuck Schuldiner from Death still haven't been dethroned as the pioneers of that style. But then nobody will ever overthrow Univers Zero from the pedestal of the originators of chamber RIO (as contrasted with the movement’s left-wingers :-) Henry Cow who are the founders of the style as such, but whose approach to it bears a heavily improvisational character), since their “UZ” is in all senses a hallmark creation which set a whole new direction in contemporary music.
Conclusion. There should only be epithets of praise here, as well as in any review of “UZ”, IMHO. One of the biggest as well as rarest diamonds in the crown of our beloved genre, one of the very first prog rock embodiments of magical realism, this dark, yet so beautiful and attractive fairy-tale was, is and will forever remain a classic whose glory, in turn, will never be dimmed. I believe it wouldn't be a crime if I say that all the classic Univers Zero recordings have always been permanent residents of my personal charts, “UZ” in particular near-topping that of 1977.
VM=Vitaly Menshikov: February 9, 2009
[ SHORT REVIEWS | DETAILED REVIEWS - LIST | BANDLISTS ]