Univers Zero


Not too many people today remember the courageous musical experiment that is usually labelled by using the umbrella name Rock In Opposition. Fewer still are those who mention it for the important episode that it was. But - almost thirty years after the first RIO Festival held in London, which tried to make something bigger come into being - it can be said that for the most part the albums recorded during that fertile period still have a lot of validity and beauty; thanks to re-releases, that music - which today is, in a sense, "classic" - is ready to be (re)discovered in all its fantastic "out-of-fashion" dimension.

If for a moment we consider Rock In Opposition's effort to be a kind of "non-American" rock whose intention was to rediscover those cultural traits that were by their very own nature non-imitative as RIO's distinctive peculiarity, not many groups can be regarded as paradigmatic as Univers Zero. Here it's quite easy to mention those albums that can be considered as the most artistically successful among the ones recorded by the Belgian group: Ceux Du Dehors (1981) and the maxi EP Crawling Wind (1983, re-released on CD with a lot of good stuff added in 2001). Tense, intense, dark music where the main colours come from instruments not usually associated with the word "rock", such as oboe, bassoon, violin and piano, along with drums - played by the group's main composer and leader, Daniel Denis - which often reminded the listener of an orchestral drum set.

It's quite easy to guess the commercial outcome of this music. Hence, no new Univers Zero recordings for thirteen years (and no group concerts for longer than that). And the proof that things are not that easy yet is visible on the back cover of the new album, Live: Avec le soutien de la Communauté française de Belgique e de la Loterie Nationale (hence, the Loterie's slogan: Vous Jouez, Vous Aidez).

Though I was not terribly glad to have to admit it, I found The Hard Quest (1999) - the first new album to be released under the name Univers Zero after a long silence - not to my liking. It's obvious that all artists and groups that have great works behind them will be measured by them, a fact which sometimes is not really fair; but here there were other elements I didn't like, above all a certain timbral coldness and an instrumental interplay which I found quite lacking, both elements which appeared to show an organism assembled in an artificial way; the leader's compositions, a bit too much on the brief side, sometimes sounded mannered; some new/different climates left me puzzled - a good example being Xenantaya, which for this writer sounded alarmingly like a Third Ear Band melody with funky rhythms added (a friend who has good ears mentioned the group Area). The album sounded as having more in common with solo works by Daniel Denis such as Sirius And The Ghosts (1991) and Les Eaux Troubles ('93) than with other albums by Univers Zero: why use the name, then?

Though I think nobody could say that the albums that appeared later - Rhythmix (2002) and Implosion (2004) - were as successful as the group's classics, things sounded as to be improving. And a friend of mine who's usually quite reliable having seen the group live told me of a nice concert. So there was hope.

Whether that hope gets to be satisfied by the present album, Live, is something that each listener will have to decide for him/herself. For this writer, Live is a good album, where the concert dimension, the chosen repertory and the very good line-up all contribute to make the weak points matter a lot less than the strong ones.

We have a nice line-up: alongside Daniel Denis's drums, we have a familiar face: Michel Berckmans on oboe and bassoon, plus Eric Plantain on bass, Peter Van Den Berghe on keyboards, Kurt Bodé on clarinet and tenor sax, and Martin Lauwers on violin. The pieces that have been chosen to appear on the album show that Denis has decided to feature quite a lot of new tracks, which had never been played live before: with the exception of Bonjour Chez Vous, off Ceux Du Dehors, and Toujours Plus À L'Est, off Crawling Wind, we have three compositions off The Hard Quest (Xenantaya, Civic Circus and Kermesse Atomique), two off Implosion (Falling Rain Dance and Méandres), and Electronika Mambo Musette off the second solo album by Denis, Les Eaux Troubles. The instrumental performances are good, rich with versatility and strength. The fact that the track that I like the least, Xenantaya, was chosen as the album opener (maybe to increase its "commercial potential"?) at first made me swim against the current, but the other stuff is good: Bounjour Chez Vous is as tense and intense as the original version; Electronika Mambo Musette is a nice change of pace, sounding almost like a "New English Jazz" track à la Nucleus/Soft Machine; Kermesse Atomique is maybe the track I liked best among the new ones, together with the long and quite maze-like Méandres; Civic Circus is also good; I was quite surprised to find a - not too long - drum solo on Falling Rain Dance, a track whose theme is quite "easy on the ears". (The group's new music can be said to be less intense and sinister than the one played by the old band, but only those who are used at overdosing with coffee could define the new tracks as being "new age-y".)

Denis is his old, good self - and the fact that the drummer profession is maybe the one most at risk of disappearing makes his work on drums and cymbals (listen to that strange bass drum sound!) even more valuable; for reasons I couldn't really understand Berkmans's work is for the most part placed a bit too low in the mix, but what we can hear is good; Budé's clarinet is more to the fore, and he also plays a nice tenor solo on Electronika Mambo Musette; Plantain's bass work is solid; Peter Van Den Berghe's work has architectural importance, but he also gets some solo space, on piano and on some unspecified synthetic keyboards; Lauwers's violin is good, but to my ears the instrument suffers from having too much reverb, which makes it sound as made of plastic; the same thing is also true, to a lesser extent, of the other instruments, excepting the drums; only the closing track, Toujours Plus À L'Est, has a drier sound, which made me appreciate it even more.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2006

CloudsandClocks.net | March 10, 2006