Where Bartok and Stravinsky intersect with the firebrand intensity of late period Coltrane and Ayler, the heavily orchestrated prog bombast of early ELP and King Crimson, RIO stalwarts Henry Cow, and a particularly European mode of post-modern Baroque composition, there at the center lies Univers Zero. Founder and drummer Daniel Denis certainly had a unique version for his ensemble, an explosive marriage of classical music and chamber rock that was undeniably progressive in every sense of the word, yet not tainted by the stain categorical "prog" of the late 70s/early 80s left on rock's tattered corpus. At a time when punk was tearing asunder the symphonic dinosaurs of rock's golden age, Univers Zero were true anomalies, yet their strident, fiercely played works, comparable with then contemporaries Magma and Peter Frohmader, seemed to lift them out of context and into respectability, cult status or not be damned.
Live, Univers Zero were nigh on unstoppable, as the tracks on this set of archival works more than amply reveals. "L'Etrange Mixture du Docteur Schwartz" and "Presage" are group nuggets, distillations of something representative of an ensemble sound, except that reducing the band's individual pieces to mere fundamentalist elements would be doing their music a grand disservice. The players' command of their instruments is beyond reproach, their exhortations the stuff of mad fever dreams. Horn man Dirk Descheenmaeker is a veritable force of nature, as is drummer Denis, both men mounting futile attempts to keep pace with one another, reacting to each other's hyperkinetic impulses as if the gig itself faced self-immolation. It's a credit to bassist Christian Genet, whose bulldozer rumble mirrors that of John Wetton's Crimson acrobatics circa Red, and keyboardist Jean-Luc Plouvier, who provides all manners of shrieking tone colors, that the music rarely descends into abject chaos or cacophony; a piece such as 1984's "Parade" zips across the stage at supersonic speeds, yet each player's instrumental shades form perfectly crystallized cells in the kaleidoscopic mix. Wringing out new syntaxes for a prescient 21st-century classical music (and, at this time, without the benefit of a single guitar), it's a glorious noise.
Univers Zero's personnel roster often functioned like a revolving door, yet Denis, Descheenmaeker, and Plouvier, the group's generally constant foundational triad, actually expanded come 85 and 86, with performances in Germany and Belgium that must have been both incendiary and breathless to behold. Guitarist Michel Delory joined the group for these shows, but his presence is largely muted in the mix; violinist Patrick Hanappier is by far the better foil for Descheenmaeker's array of clarinets and saxes, with the entire combo further vaulted into the stratosphere by the addition of keyboardist Andy Kirk, whose dark swells of piano and minor-chord clusters cast ominous, gargantuan shadows over the group. "The Funeral Plain", a Univers Zero chestnut given a reading here that is only rivaled by Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King for approaching a similarly vested apocalyptic critical mass, goes through a maze of cunning detours and inebriated states, a sensorium of new-fangled classicism that would surely have the aforementioned Bartok spinning in his grave — in epiphanic rapture.
Comments and Feedback: