[8 September 2008]
In the late 1970s, while America was still mortified at what Zeppelin and Sabbath records sounded like when played backwards, abstruse European prog bands seemed to be directly summoning up the dark lord for those who played their albums the intended way. Perhaps none of these bands has made as singular an impression as the three-decade-old (and counting) Belgian chamber music group Univers Zero.
Comprised of an erratic shape-shifting lineup spanning the European jazz, fusion, and progressive rock scenes, Univers Zero started out humbly trying to mime Soft Machine dynamics before slowly gravitating away from the trendy sonics of the art-rock crowd. By the release of its first album, which has been dutifully remastered and reissued by Cuneiform Records, the band had abandoned rock instruments altogether in favor of orchestral contraptions like the oboe and the harmonium, a move that howls of Anglophile-proper Canterbury-style aesthetics. That is, until you actually hear the menacing maelstrom that the band came up with.
Intitially released in an extremely limited edition of 500 and once dubbed 1313 after its self-released catalogue number (one of the only distinguishable marks on the original album art), Univers Zero is a Faustian saga (like the drama, not the band) which plays like a symphonic tour of a Bosch painting. At times it’s as taut and controlled as a Carl Stalling Looney Tunes dub, at others as free and chaotic as a Transylvanian peyote orgy.
So what is this exactly? The mystical black-and-white cover looks like it could be a death metal jacket. The name comes from a collection of short stories by science fiction writer Jacques Sternberg, a moniker arrived at after the disbanding of two groups with H.P. Lovecraft-prompted sobriquets (Arkham and Necronomicon). You can hear Lovecraft’s writing all over the music, the intense cosmic gloom, the deep-seated misanthropy, and the inaccessible and archaic language (in this case, the use of string instruments). “La Faulx”, originally from the 1979 masterpiece Heresie, one of the most sinister albums ever recorded, appears here as a live bonus track, featuring some Cthulhu Cult-like low-register chanting that makes it come off like a recording of Anton Lavey’s black masses as scored by Stravinsky.
Stravinsky and twentieth century classical composers like Bartók, Ives, Penderecki, and Huybrechts proved some of the band’s most distinguishing influences, along with its highly respected peers in the similarly apocalyptic Magma, but Univers Zero was distinguished by a secret weapon in its arsenal. Drummer and Lovecraft fanboy Daniel Denis’s aptitude for polyrhythms and odd time signature changes straight out of Yes’s Close to the Edge keeps Univers Zero (1313) in constant motion and translates its dense avant-garde operatics into a format palatable to rock audiences, which otherwise might have turned off. Not that scores haven’t in the 31 years since the album’s release. It still lacks, you know, guitar solos and such.
Univers Zero, along with its more overwrought and scatological Rock in Opposition peers Henry Cow and Mothers of Invention, forged a genre of music that might appropriately be dubbed post-rock, had the term not been coined 15 years too late. Traces of these bands can be found in Univers Zero’s formula too, but the Belgians’ craft at calculated pomp and nervous precision make Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s apocalyptic grandiosity seem like a Michael Bay movie in comparison. In fact, it’s a wonder sick minds from Kenneth Anger to Lucio Fulci never offered Univers Zero a film score. Maybe that’s because for all of its cinematic and theatrical potential, this is sure-fire listening music, intended for the attentive music fan, and almost too distracting for driving. Each song is its own instrumental narrative, puzzle, and invective rolled into one.
The new mix cleans things up brilliantly so that every pluck is enunciated and every space hollowed and filled with looming dread, dynamizing an album whose sonics often seemed tempered in comparison to the rest of the group’s catalogue. “Ronde” opens the album with 15 loaded minutes that incorporate minor-chord minuets, terse and screeching bowed strings, sparse but enigmatic organ sounds, and a lurching sense of claustrophobic doom. And that’s literally just the beginning. There’s rarely a dull or expected moment to follow.