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Univers Zero - 1986/2009 - "Relaps"

(71.23, Cuneiform Records)


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TRACK LIST:                   

1.  L'Etrange Mixture du Docteur Schwartz 4.04 
2.  Presage 10.08
3.  Parade 8.15
4.  Ligne Claire Extract 3.57
5.  Emanations 12.34
6.  Heatwave 8.47
7.  The Funeral Plain 18.10
8.  L'Etrange Mixture Free-style Version 4.46

LINEUP: 

Daniel Denis – drums
Christian Genet – bass  
Jean-Luc Plouvier – keyboards  
Dirk Descheemaeker – saxophone, clarinets
&:
Andy Kirk – keyboards (5-8) 
Michel Delory – guitar (5-8)  
Patrick Hanappier – violin, viola (5-8)
Andre Mergenthaler – cello; saxophone (5-8)

Prolusion. Hailing from Belgium, where they were founded in 1974, UNIVERS ZERO are undoubtedly one of the most influential acts in progressive rock. Besides their role as founding members of the Rock In Opposition (RIO) movement, created in 1979 by initiative of Henry Cow’s Chris Cutler, the band are also considered as the initiators of the ‘chamber rock’ subgenre, which is one of the distinctive features of the Belgian musical scene. Comprising a total of eight live recordings, “Relaps” (Archives 1984-‘86) documents a particularly fertile period in Univers Zero’s activity, the mid-Eighties. The first four tracks date back from the months prior to the release of their critically-acclaimed fifth album, “Uzed” (1984); while the rest of the tracks were recorded in 1985 and 1986 as a seven-piece – the same line-up that, later in 1986, went into the studio to record “Heatwave”, and then disbanded, putting the band on hold for over a decade. Cuneiform Records have reissued all of Univers Zero’s back catalogue, as well as their new material.

Analysis. “Relaps” captures a particularly intense period in Univers Zero’s long, troubled history – fraught with setbacks and difficulties of every description, yet incredibly productive from a musical point of view. The album is neatly split in two halves, the first four tracks recorded in the early months of 1984, the other four in two different years, 1985 and 1986. Even allowing for the evident differences between the two incarnations performing here, the evolution of the band’s sound in the years following their first four releases comes across very clearly. While the dark, disquieting nature of their music – always effectively emphasized by their choice of cover artwork – remains a constant, their compositional scope goes way beyond the haunting, largely acoustic minimalism of their earlier albums, with a welcome injection of electric energy and more distinctly recognizable ‘progressive’ influences. The first three tracks are all included on “Uzed”, which had not yet been released at the time when the performance was recorded. The band had recently been reactivated after a meltdown which had led to the departure of several members, and this particular incarnation would not last very long either – mainly for financial reasons. However, none of these problems are in any way evident in the brilliant performance given by the band. L’Etrange Mixture du Docteur Schwartz opens the proceedings with a short but concentrated dose of classic UZ, melding austerity and quirkiness in a very academic-sounding, reeds-driven composition. The following two tracks, Presage and Parade, are in a way meant to represent two parts of a longer whole, and display a level of complexity that suggests a symphonic rather than chamber orientation. Controlled chaos would be the best description for Presage, where the instruments often appear to be sparring with each other, producing a dark, dissonant, yet deeply intriguing mood that climaxes in an intense crescendo at the end. In a similar vein, Parade is built around Daniel Denis’ stellar drumming, which forms a sort of focal point for the interventions of the other instruments, as well as Dirk Descheemaeker’s brilliant clarinet work – particularly commanding towards the end of the track. The first half of the album closes with a short extract from Ligne Claire, an unrecorded Denis composition displaying some interesting jazzy touches. The second half opens with the 12-minute-plus Emanations, recorded in early 1986 at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival. Originally included on “Uzed”, and offers an alternative take on the original version, beefed up by the presence of strings and a second keyboardist, former member Andy Kirk. An arrestingly intricate composition, broken down by frequent pauses and shifting moods, it feels at times like the ideal soundtrack for an old-fashioned suspense movie. It is also shows the gradual encroachment of jazz/fusion influences into the band’s trademark ‘chamber’ sound. Heatwave (title-track of what was to be UZ’s last album for over ten years) features some heavy guitar riffing that, blending with the low, persistent drone of the cello and the stately, march-like drum beat, effectively evokes the oppressive heat conjured by the title. The album is then brought to a triumphant climax by a stunning rendition of the 18-minute epic The Funeral Plain, originally penned (like Heatwave) by keyboardist Andy Kirk before leaving the band in 1983. As the title suggests, it is an extremely dark, thoroughly haunting offering, consisting of a slow, rarefied first half where each of the instruments enters the stage in turn, gradually building up a sense of foreboding that leads to an absolutely stunning crescendo – somehow reminiscent of Ravel’s hugely influential “Bolero”. The stately, majestic funeral march is propelled along by Denis’ relentless, powerful yet controlled drumming interacting with Michel Delory’s wild guitar work. After such a tour de force, the free-style version of L’Etrange Mixture du Docteur Schwartz that closes the album sounds like little more than an afterthought. “Relaps” presents the Belgian masters when they were at the top of their game, almost against the odds. Brimming with intensity and flawless instrumental mastery, it is – like all of the band’s recordings – a very demanding, occasionally uncomfortable listen, but also one that will bring great rewards in the end.

Conclusion. Needless to say, “Relaps” is a must for fans of the original RIO/Avant-prog movement, and for any dedicated followers of Univers Zero’s variegated career. Though the sound quality is not always ideal, and therefore does not do complete justice to the stunning music produced by the band, this album is a testimony to one of the most productive periods in the long history of one of the most influential, challenging outfits on the progressive rock scene. Very highly recommended.

RB=Raffaella Berry: April 20, 2010
The Rating Room


Related Links:

Cuneiform Records
Univers Zero


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