While it's often lumped in with Rock in Opposition (RIO) groups like Henry Cow, there really are more differences than similarities between Belgium's Univers Zero and its British counterparts. Both share roots in chamber musicespecially the 20th Century varietyand a disposition towards idiosyncratic compositions.
But Henry Cow also explored free improvisation and, especially when teamed up with members of Slapp Happy, a serious political agenda as well. Univers Zero, on the other hand, only provide space for improvisation within the confines of primary composer/percussionist Daniel Denis' complex through-composition. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on Univers Zero's latest releasethe group's first live recording, despite the fact that it's been together for nearly twenty of the past thirty years.
Denis and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Michel Berckmans are the only remaining original members, but Univers Zero has still maintained a consistent sound, even as Denis' writing has moved some distance away from the relentless doom-and-gloom of the group's debut, 1313 (Atem, 1977). Unorthodox instrumentationviolin, oboe, bassoon, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, melodica and tenor saxophoneblends with a more conventional keyboards-bass-drums rhythm section, giving the sextet a broad range of textures to apply to a cross-section of material culled from albums dating back to 1981's acclaimed Ceux du DeHors.
"Xenantaya," from 1999's The Hard Quest, begins ominouslywith oboe, clarinet and violin delivering a Middle Eastern-inflected theme over a brooding keyboard wash from Peter Van Den Berghe. But when Denis and bassist Eric Plantain enter with a powerful groove, Univers Zero comes closer to a rock aesthetic than Henry Cow ever did. Still, the periodic insertion of a gothic half-time phrase breaks up the groove, and Berckmans, violinist Martin Lauwers and Van Den Berghe each get room to stretch in an almost fusion-like fashion. Unlike Cow's anarchistic approach to improvisation, Univers Zero aligns itself to the concept of clear delineation.
Also from The Hard Quest, "Civic Circus"with its medieval-like contrapuntal approachsuggests how Gentle Giant might have sounded had it leaned more towards the dark side. But whereas Giant's complex writing still revolved around conventional song form, with vocals part of the picture, Univers Zero's all-instrumental approach applies a broader-scoped classical aesthetic, where a piece might contain multiple movements that don't necessarily resurface again after their first appearance.
In fact, the two groups share much in common, despite the different instrumentation and the fact that Univers Zero's music is untarnished by the commercial aspirations that ultimately led to Giant's demise. With roots in classical music from multiple eras, often driven by a propulsive rhythm section, Univers Zero manages to make the obscure somehow strangely palatable, and even when the solos lean to the extreme, as they do on "Kermesse Atomique," there's a certain undeniable accessibility.
Of course, Denis' music presents its own form of challenge. But rather than alienate, Univers Zero draws the listener in, making Live a terrific place to start for those new to this truly progressive Belgian ensemble.
Personnel: Michael Berckmans: oboe, English horn, bassoon, melodica; Kurt Bude: clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone; Daniel Denis: drums, percussion; Martin Lauwers: violin; Eric Plaintain: electric bass; Peter Van Den Berghe: keyboards.