Even some 30 odd years after it first came into existence, Belgian band Univers Zero sounds as though it's intent upon a soundtrack for the last days of the earth, or at least the last days of human life upon it. This collection of live recordings from over twenty years ago prove it in its way, although it has to be said that if anything, the live setting ensures the performances are even more malignantly visceral than they usually are.
It's often the case that composers such as Ligeti are cited as influences or touchstones when dealing with this band, but those of Henry Cow and Van Der Graaf Generator are equally pertinent, not least because both of those aggregations have in their way fashioned music that stays within the rock idiom even while appearing to have little time for such genre trappings. All three bands have also utilized highly formal structures; of the three, Univers Zero has done so to the greatest extent. Thus the epithet of "freestyle version" attached to "L'Etrange Mixture de Docteur Schwarz" is enigmatic in view of the seemingly tightly arranged performance, although things start to decompose in an almost literal sense at around the four minute mark.
The chamber music notion which has also been mentioned with reference to the band is arguably most easily applicable to "Emanations," caught live at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival in 1986. Given the nature of that festival, this musicsuggestive of through compositioncould have been a little incongruous. Negligible keyboard motifs seem to shoot off from the customary dark undercurrent, with bassist Christian Genet suggesting here, as he does elsewhere, a genetically modified strain of Flemish funk before woodwind motifs take up the call as they seemingly strain at the limits of the music in the ill-fated hope of taking it to a brighter, less forbidding place.
Keyboardist Andy Kirk's "Heatwave" is suggestive of the chamber notion too, especially through its portentous brooding which, thankfully, given the unremitting darkness it conjures up, is resolved in something suggestive of carnival music, albeit that of a carnival held in defiance of imminent decay.
This all suggests something lacking in light and shade, and while it's certainly the case that such variation is in short supply, it's clear that this is a band with a different aesthetic agenda than anything such a contrast might suggest. The notion of dark fun might just about cover it, but even that does scant justice to such a singular band.
Track Listing: L'Etrange Mixture du Docteur Schwartz; Presage; Parade; Ligne Claire; Emnations; Heatwave; The Funeral Plain; L'Etrange Mixture du Docteur Schwartz (free-style version).
Personnel: Daniel Denis: drums; Dirk Descheemaeker: clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone; Christian Genet: bass; Jean-Luc Plouvier: keyboards; Andre Mergenthaler: cello (1-4); Michel Delory: electric guitar (5-8); Patrick Hanappier: violin (5-8), viola (5-8); Andy Kirk: keyboards (5-8).