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In lots of music that attempts to fuse influences from disparate genres, the discerning listener can say, “oh, there’s the rock beat,” “and there’s the jazzy solo,” “and there’s the traditional folk melody,” deconstructing the music piece-by-piece into component genres. But then there’s Univers Zero, a Belgian so-called “chamber rock” ensemble whose albums have all been released by Silver Spring’s Cuneiform Records. Earlier this year, Cuneiform issued a remastered, expanded version of the band’s self-titled debut, originally released in 1977.
Univers Zero take their cues from 20th century classical music and then amp it up with a rock sensibility. But wait! Don’t run away just yet we’re not talking Emerson, Lake and Palmer-style Cheez Whiz here. UZ’s almost entirely acoustic sound blurs genre boundaries much more effectively than most any conventional rock band’s efforts to set already bombastic Romantic-period classical music to a thumping backbeat. Instead, if Béla Bartók had lived until the late ’70s and became a rock drummer, this is the kind of stuff he might have written.
Univers Zero, the record, kicks off with its centerpiece, the 15-minute “Ronde.” Scratchy violins set a loping rhythm to start the piece off, soon joined by a melodic lead on bassoon (an instrument that figures very prominently in the group’s overall sound). Bandleader/composer/drummer Daniel Denis joins shortly, his drumming never really rock-oriented, instead providing color and accenting, occasionally egging the band on with a driving rhythm. The composition twists and turns, spotlighting the bassoon and later a violin-led freakout that wouldn’t have been out of place on some of the records that, say, Peter Brötzmann was doing around the same time. Through it all, an ensemble mentality dominates; there are solos, but the real action is in the compositional drama.
The big treat on the reissue, though, is the bonus track “La Faulx,” a nearly 30-minute live version of the epic opening track from Univers Zero’s second album, Heresie. It’s the ultimate Halloween music; you’ve never heard a harmonium sound this evil before. Indeed, this band only got better as it matured; the debut is nice, but then a run of three near-masterpieces ensued much of this happening during the cultural wasteland known as the 80s. All these records are in print on Cuneiform, alongside several newer, more overtly rock-oriented albums from the band’s relatively recent (1999-present) reunion.
Last year, one of the best concerts I saw was the modern chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound at the Library of Congress. In many ways, Univers Zero’s music is very similar to the polyrhythmic chaos of the compositions that Alarm Will Sound played at that show last year. If only Denis wasn’t pigeonholed as a rock drummer, I could see him leading his group at the Coolidge Auditorium just as well as I could see him at the Velvet Lounge. That’s a testament to how well, and how seamlessly, Univers Zero melds intellectual Western classical music with visceral rock.