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Tomorrow night, arguably the biggest, bestest Sonic Circuits festival yet ends with a bang at La Maison Française. This year’s festival has seen a huge variety of local and (inter)national acts playing all around the D.C. area, drawing people from all over the country and even the world. Saturday’s final show is a real treat, featuring a band that will probably never play in the United States, much less the D.C. area, ever again: Univers Zero from Belgium.
If the name isn’t ringing any bells, you’re not alone. As we’ve said in previous coverage of this band, Univers Zero toils in a nearly invisible netherworld between the spheres of popular and “serious” music. Despite its obscurity, Univers Zero is among the key figures behind a uniquely Francophone style of chamber rock music and, much like Magma, who headlined Sonic Circuits’ first weekend, the group essentially created its own genre. Univers Zero’s style defies glib description, if only because any such attempt makes it sound like the worst kind of cheesy prog-rock imaginable. A reasonable point of comparison might be with the so-called “post-rock” bands that tend more toward the abstract, like a more complex, ensemble-oriented version of Rachel’s.
Univers Zero in 1979
This month, Cuneiform Records issued an expanded, remixed and remastered version of the band’s sophomore album from 1979, Heresie. Widely known as Univers Zero’s darkest album, Heresie is a record that prog nerds like to blast from their stereos on Halloween just to freak out unsuspecting trick-or-treaters. That it gained this kind of reputation while relying almost entirely on acoustic instrumentation (harmonium, oboe, bassoon, violin, and viola figuring most prominently) is particularly impressive, although it’s likely that this stems solely from the first seven minutes of the opening 25-minute beast “La Faulx.” The track starts as formless noise, which slowly coalesces into a dark wall of sound punctuated by a series of vocal roars reminiscent of death-metal howls years before that style of vocal came into fashion.
After that, the band’s strategy changes abruptly from horror soundtrack music to intricate chamber music. What keeps it firmly in rock territory is the drumming of Daniel Denis—-a true artist behind the kit whose doesn’t keep time so much as he drives the music onward and upward, his insistent rolls somehow striking a balance between classical percussion and rock ‘n’ roll propulsiveness. Over the course of three long tracks (“Jack the Ripper” and “Vous Le Suarez en Temps Voulu” clock in at 13 minutes apiece), the ensemble works its way through chamber music that is sometimes melodic, sometimes noisy, usually dark, and always compelling.
This reissue features gorgeous, clear sound with remarkable definition of the instruments, a new sound that is particularly revealing when it comes to Denis’ drumming. It also contains a 12-minute bonus track, “Chaos Hermetique,” penned by guitarist and original group member Roger Trigaux (who soon after Heresie‘s release left the band to found the equally fantastic, more overtly rock-oriented chamber ensemble Present). This track is a fascinating archaeological find, and actually sounds more like proto-Present than a true Univers Zero track, featuring much more straightforward rhythms and a largely linear compositional form. In fact, hardcore Present fans will likely recognize a few passages here and there that have appeared in Present compositions recorded as recently as 1999. Even without the excellent new remix and remaster, this reissue would be worth a look just for this bonus track.
But Heresie came out over 30 years ago. The version of Univers Zero that plays tomorrow at La Maison Française will look and sound quite different; modern-day UZ makes liberal use of electronics and electric instruments, in sharp contrast to the early band’s reliance on acoustic instrumentation. Like many bands of the era, Univers Zero went on extended hiatus starting in the late ’80s, before reforming in the late ’90s with a more rock-oriented sound. The instrumentation became more electric, and more importantly, compositions became more concise, even with some traditional song forms popping up here and there. That said, Univers Zero’s music has remained complex and challenging and Daniel Denis’ drumming is as fascinating as ever.
What’s more, in a musical landscape where there’s nothing new under the sun, Univers Zero and the few bands that have explored similar territory (present and other chamber-rock groups like Art Zoyd, Shub Niggurath, Aranis and so on) are pioneers in developing an intelligent hybrid of Western contemporary classical music and modern rock. These bands all seem to be concentrated in France and Belgium for some reason, and it’s a rare treat to have one of them in North America.
Photos of Univers Zero courtesy Cuneiform Records