One of the main safe havens for bands generating music far-flung from the norm in the 1970s was to be found in a festival titled “Rock In Opposition” (RIO). The festival and subsequent movement, was established by British avant-garde group Henry Cow in response to the music industry and its lack of appreciation for experimental and non-commercial music. Associated with the progressive rock movement and yet distinct from it, the bands associated with the RIO sound are diverse themselves. However, the influence of classical composition, and unconventional and experimental instrumentation was prevalent in all of the bands that played the festival – including Henry Cow themselves, Samla Mammas Manna (Sweden), Magma (France) and, the focus of this article, Univers Zero (Belgium).
With Univers Zero’s album Phosphorescent Dreams just released, now is as good a time as any to look over their back catalogue and showcase a few of their best works. Formed in 1974 by Belgian drummer Daniel Denis, Univers Zero are just as influenced by their contemporaries as they are by twentieth century chamber music. Their many line-ups have drawn from both pools of musicians and it is not uncommon to find electric guitar and keyboards playing alongside the harmonium, oboe or bassoon. With new album Phosphorescent Dreams just released, now is as good a time as any to look over their back catalogue and showcase a few of their best works.
The fusion of rock and classical is best heard in Univers Zero’s most famous album, 1979’s Heresie. The 25-minute opener 'La Faulx' starts off ominously as the violin and woodwinds swell around Denis’s minimalist drumming. We are then introduced to eerie vocals from bassist Guy Segers and harmonium from Roger Trigaux, which itself gives off a constant wheeze that contributes greatly to the uneasy atmosphere that surrounds a lot of Univers Zero’s work. Six and a half minutes in, things start to get serious. Guttural growls that would not be out of place on a death metal album attack the listener and just as soon, are gone. The other two tracks on the album aren’t any gentler either. 'Jack the Ripper' is a thirteen minute horror film from the opening notes, featuring screeching violins and sinister plodding bassoon, whilst closing track 'Vous le Saurez en Temps Voulu' showcases the only guitar on the album through a series of increasingly frantic rhythms and odd time signatures. The entire album is the perfect example of how to build tension. It piles on more and more until it is almost suffocating. It is hardly surprising to hear that Heresie has the reputation of being one of the darkest, scariest albums ever created. It is unrelenting. It is without relent.
Ceux du Dehors (1981)
Whilst Heresie can be daunting and impenetrable for first time listeners, Univers Zero’s subsequent album, 1981’s Ceux du Dehors, is more accessible. The entire affair is a lot more rocking, clearly evidenced by the album’s explosive opener - 'Dense'. Suitably titled, the track is jam-packed full of complex, labyrinthine rhythms and shifting time signatures, keeping one on their toes through the full 12 minutes. We’re also treated to the H.P. Lovecraft inspired 'La Musique d’Erich Zann' (The Music of Erich Zann). Apparently, the members of the band all read Lovecraft’s short story while in the studio, and then went and improvised this brief, disturbing piece of music. Coming off thoroughly composed pieces such as 'Combat' or the aforementioned 'Dense', it’s a nice change of pace highlighting that this band was always testing themselves and what they could do. Although there are quiet interludes and some beautifully sombre moments, Ceux du Dehors (and the subsequent 1984 follow-up, Uzed) has an overall rock mentality that makes it a lot easier to get into for a prog rock listener. It’s also slightly less evil sounding – due in part to the increased rock instrumentation, and the fact that nothing will ever sound as frightening as Heresie.
After Uzed, there was 1986’s Heatwave. A very electronic affair, keyboardist Andy Kirk composes half of the material here, most notably the 20-minute epic 'The Funeral Plain'. The emphasis of electric guitar and keys brings a typically 1980s coldness to the proceedings that would detract from other bands. However, in the case of Univers Zero, this coldness is simply another way to explore the darkness in their compositions. Again, the album begins with an excellent opener with the almost industrial sounding 'Heat Wave'. Mechanical drums and angular, distorted guitar give an almost King Crimson-type vibe to the material, meshing perfectly with their existing sound and providing another way into the band for a prog rock fan. Closing the album, Kirk’s sidelong piece showcases the full potential of this seven-member lineup. The first half exudes a sound reminiscent of Heresie, with Kirk’s repetitious piano providing the base for clarinet and viola to trade solos. Business as usual. Ten minutes in, however, this all dissolves into electronic noises, synth swells and robotic rhythms before bringing the album to an intense climax. Industrial, mechanical, robotic… there’s no doubting this is an 80s incarnation of Univers Zero, but at the same time Heatwave does not sound dated. It’s also worth noting that amongst the three albums released in the 1980s, there is none of the compromise that plagued a lot of 70s bands attempting to keep an audience. The music is pure, unadulterated UZ. It’s a shame that due to financial difficulties, Univers Zero disbanded for some time after this. Denis would reform the band for 1999’s The Hard Quest, unfortunately not received particularly favourably.
Phosphorescent Dreams (2014)
The newer incarnation of Univers Zero was notable for its return to the “classic” lineup and refocus on acoustic instrumentation. This served them well with three studio and two live albums after The Hard Quest, showing they clearly had a new lease on life and an eager fanbase. This enthusiasm is particularly noticeable in the band’s latest instalment.
Although clearly and uniquely evil sounding, there’s a more buoyant, lively quality to this year’s Phosphorescent Dreams. The first two tracks are quintessential Univers Zero, but 'Très Affables' borders on joyful with its 9/8 motif. 'Rêve Mécanique' delves into this territory as well. Kurt Budé’s woodwinds circle around Nicholas Dechêne’s beautiful shimmery guitar, melding perfectly with the intricate piano before the track changes direction and heads into territory approaching free-jazz. This is the happiest they have ever sounded and injects a freshness into the work that is certainly well-received. After 40 years and 12 albums of sonic intensity and bleak dissonance, it’s nice for a bit of a change.
That’s not to say it’s all fun and games. The ending to 'Les Vouleurs d’Ombre' speeds up from a snail’s pace to a freakish crescendo, again revealing the band can rival King Crimson in angular riffage when they feel like it. 'L’Espoir Perdu' is like a soundtrack to the aftermath of a battle, with mournful trumpet and trombone propelled by Denis’ militant drumming. Then, we come to the near-title track. Soulful distorted guitar interplays with slow burning clarinet over the opening 3 minutes of 'Phosphorescent Dream'. The emotion and passion of the playing is palpable. And just when things start get to get groovy, everything falls back to the clarinet again. The fluid, intangible nature of the first half of the piece just makes the ending all the better once the drums are in full swing. The band starts to fluctuate between 70s prog grooves and funereal chord progressions, heading towards a climax that collapses in on itself. After all these years of experience, these musicians truly are the masters of building tension.
Phosphorescent Dreams is the perfect title for this era of Univers Zero. The music may sound bleak, or desperate, or just plain evil, but there’s hope now. There’s an ethereal dreamscape you walk through, drenched in darkness. But there are flashes of light as well, and that’s something which Denis & Co. have not even suggested as a possibility in some time.