A VERY AUSPICIOUS DEBUT
Larry L. Looney | Austin, Texas USA | 05/02/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Recorded in August of 1977, and released independently not too long after that, Univers Zero's first album is a classic in every sense of the word. UZ (from Belgium) were one of the original five bands that comprised Rock in Opposition - the others being Henry Cow (UK), Samla Mammas Manna (Sweden), Stormy Six (Italy) and Etron Fou LeLoublan (France). The bands shared leftist political beliefs - and unlike many who professed them, attempted to conduct themselves accordingly - and styles of music that were, to say the least, outside of the commercial `stables' of the day. Chris Cutler, of Henry Cow (and many other musical configurations) went on to found what has become the blueprint prototype for independent distribution organizations, Recommended Records. But I digress...Univers Zero's sound is a heady mix of classical (leaning heavily toward the more modern, twelve-tone end of the spectrum), rock and jazz. Most of the pieces are pretty strictly composed, although they allow plenty of room for improvisation from the various musicians. This first album is all instrumental - Michel Berckmans (bassoon), Daniel Denis (percussion), Marcel Dufrane (violin), Christian Genet (bass), Patrick Hanappier (violin, viola, pocket cello), Emmanuel Nicaise (harmonium, spinet), and Roger Trigaux (guitar). The band has experienced many personnel changes over the years, with Denis and Berckmans being the tandem core for most of their career - but through it all, they have remained remarkably true to their original ethos, expressed so eloquently by the compositions on this release.`Ronde' begins the set, ushered in by the strings, which are soon joined by Berckmans' chuckling bassoon - the percussion, bass, guitar and keyboards slide in each in their turn, and the piece is off and strolling, leading the listener on a fourteen-minute-plus exploration and introduction into the band's musical territory. Themes arise, make themselves known, disappear to make room for others, then resurface individually or in pairings with others - the music is constructed with intelligence, verve and humor, making it a delight and a complete reward for the ears and the mind. I remember the first time I heard this album, about 26 years ago - as dark as some of the music may be, my first reaction was delirious. Pure glee. I had heard about the band, read about their instrumentation and influences - but when I experienced this music for the first time, I knew I had found something very special indeed. As the years have passed, I have not heard a single release by this band that has disappointed me - they are always challenging.The second (much shorter) piece, `Carabosse', begins more slowly, building nicely to a medium tempo and passing through several changes that always leave me marveling that the piece is really under four minutes long. In this regard alone it reminds me of `Bittern storm over Ulm', the first track on Henry Cow's UNREST album. So much is conceived, offered and executed in so short a space.`Doctor Petiot' and `Malaise' follow next, both being composed by guitarist Roger Trigaux (all of the other tracks on this album were written by Daniel Denis) - and though they fall easily into the broad stylistic area mapped out by the band, the personality of the author is noticeably apparent. `Dr. Petiot' begins with a brief line on the violin, followed quickly by the guitar and the rest of the band. This track, as well as `Malaise', feature a more `up-front' use of percussive techniques, not just from Denis, but from the whole ensemble. They combine this with melody in a very effective way.The album concludes with another Denis composition, `Complainte' - the strings begin with a `see-sawing' effect, with Berckmans laying a high-register (for the bassoon, at any rate) melody over the top. The basic rhythm remains pretty constant throughout the short (under four minutes) piece, with the strings taking over from the bassoon from time to time. Unless they're being extremely subtle, the guitar, bass, keyboard and drums seem to be sitting this track out, making it even more of a `chamber' piece than the others.This is dark music - but actually extremely beautiful, and masterfully composed and performed. There is discord here and there, as in many examples of contemporary classical music - but in no way does it pull the music into the realm of the unlistenable. It's challenging stuff - not for the faint of heart or ears - but infinitely rewarding. The original recordings were remixed by Denis, Genet and Roland Herrerro in 1984 for the CD release - the slightly muddy sound of the original LP has been vastly improved here.If you've never experienced this amazing band, this is a great place to start - it's fascinating to hear their personality change and mature through the albums to come: HERESIE (their second, from 1979) is one of the most brilliant recordings I've ever heard; CEUX DU DEHORS (1980) saw them add a touch of electronics to the mix; CRAWLING WIND was originally an e.p., but was expanded to album length for its CD release. The band split up for a while, and then reformed - THE HARD QUEST (1999) is excellent as well, and shows that their spirit remains strong. Their work is essential listening for anyone with the urge to explore the outer reaches of modern music."
Bartok, Stravinsky, Univers Zero, Nash and Young
Bruce Brownlee | Malden, MA | 06/05/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I'm merely replying to the previous review, in which the reviewer noted that the comparisons to Bartok and Stravinsky are somewhat overheated, and that going for the real deal is much better.Of course it is. Do it now. Pierre Boulez is taking a leisurely stroll through both at DG -- excellent, if a bit dry and theoretical (much like Pierre himself.) These will do nicely, and are relatively easy to locate, and this isn't the place to discuss the various merits and otherwise of historical recordings and recent competitors. I'd further recommend neglected composers Paul Hindemith and Vagn Holmboe, to mention two that I am currently pushing to anyone who will listen, which many understandably don't. But back to U. Zero.If we are comparing them the the great composers of this century, few writing and working after 1950 qualify. Certainly major contemporary composers like Glass, Adams, Reich, et al., are exploring new realms of tedium (and I thought that tedium was all played out as a style. But no.) If classical music has gone anywhere, it's gone to fairly obscure European "rock" groups like Univers Zero -- those who write challenging compositions (not "masterpieces," but who does?), and play them, too, with rigor and zest and imagination. (The classical players being ground out of the conservatories rarely write, and if so according to the flavor of the month, and play in that bland, hypertechnical "international" style. UZ may not be art, but they don't fall for the illusion of technique and call it art, nor (for that matter) do they play three chords and scream and call it art.)Moving on. For those wary of classical music, UZ might serve as a good stepping-stone -- certainly far better than, e.g., ELP. But I venture to say that most lovers of UZ don't need a stepping-stone to other music, and those who dislike Igor and Bela and friends will dislike UZ, too. As for the classical folk -- well, most of my friends of a "classical" persuasion tend to like surprisingly mainstream rock (the Beatles, Joni, etc.) and jazz (Brubeck, Peterson.) I will never understand this.Anyway, UZ were (and are: new CD just out on Cuneiform) a truly exciting band IN THEIR MILIEU. Perhaps my "Stravinsky and Bartok join a rock band" remark was a bit glib and superficial (and unimaginative), but it's adequate shorthand, I guess, indicating sorta kinda what to expect. Actually, the idea of BB and IS forming a rock band is a counterfactual absurdity (though perhaps worthy of a humorous short story, or an amusing (but brief) composition. Nor is UZ a rock band. But there you go. As with most between-the-cracks obscurities, if you like this sort of thing (Art Zoyd, Daniel Denis, Etron Fou, etc.), then you'll like this sort of thing. "1313," UZ's first recording(?), is perhaps not the best place to start, but all of their records are worthwhile -- for those who like this sort of thing.Oh, and UZ are not an RIO band."
One of a kind
Larry L. Looney | 05/04/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"this is the only record i've heard by this band. very unique "chamber-rock" from france, late 70's. compositions follow a stravinskian or bartok tradition, with a fascination with occult, "goth" themes. the first piece scares the hell out of me. don't expect so much "rocking out" per se, but the intensity of the compositions is absolutely the focus here."