The brainchild of Belgian drummer, percussionist, and composer Daniel Denis, Univers Zero is one of the most important and consistently interesting progressive bands around today. Their music is an improbable fusion of late 20th Century modern chamber music (e.g., Bartok, Stravinsky, Varese, Schoenberg), various stripes of European folk and Medieval music, and late 60s / early 70s modern jazz (Denis’ brilliant polyrhythmic drumming is quite reminiscent of Tony Williams’ circa ‘Emergency’). Along with Henry Cow, Samla Mammas Manna, Stormy Six, Art Zoyd, and other European avant-prog bands, Univers Zero also helped found the well-known ‘Rock In Opposition’ (RIO) movement during the early 80s.
Denis’ use of trash percussion and his tendency to populate the group with non-rock instruments such as violin, bassoon, oboe, harpsichord, and harmonium is central to the band’s uniquely atmospheric sound. Many of Denis’ compositions have a dark, sinister air, and feature complex multi-sectioned structures, twisted melodies, gloriously odd time signatures, and dense, dissonant harmonies. The group reached its most lofty pinnacle during the late 70s and early 80s with a succession of three indispensable recordings (‘Ceux de Dehors’, ‘Uzed’, and ‘Crawling Wind’) that literally burst with startlingly intricate and inspired music. While Univers Zero’s earlier albums were every bit as inventive, these three recordings were further distinguished by the presence of strong improvisers such as clarinetist Dirk Descheemaeker, cellist Andre Mergen, and bassoonist Michel Berckmans.
The band broke up in 1986 after releasing ‘Heatwave’ - an LP that had an uncharacteristically muscular, fusion-oriented sound - but was revived in the late 90s. "Live" is Univers Zero’s first purely ‘in-concert’ recording and captures a version of the band comprised of long-time stalwarts Denis and Berckmans assisted by a new generation of like-minded musicians such as bassist Eric Plantain, violinist Martin Lauwers and saxophonist Kurt Budé. Similarly, the playlist those nights included a few gems from the glory days (‘Toujours Plus á L’Est’ and ‘Bonjour Chez Vous’), one new piece (‘Electronika Mambo Musette’) and several pieces from two of their three most recent recordings.
Live shows the band to be in fine form and up to its usual tricks. Denis, in particular, is well recorded and his drums, along with Plantain’s virtuoso electric bass, are pushed forward in the mix. Though Denis’ compositions have a good share of delicate and formal passages, the essence of the Univers Zero sound is its tightly knit, acrobatic rhythm section work. Unfortunately, the necessity of amplification and electronic instruments flattens out the more atmospheric elements, and the creepy, subtle side of Denis’ compositions seems to be lost in favor of a more aggressive jazz-fusion sort of approach.
This edition of the band, however, is pretty well-suited to the crunchier sound and greater emphasis on extended soloing. Keyboardist Peter van den Berghe almost steals the whole show - he whips out some smoking faux Rhodes on the opener ‘Xenantaya’, and uses his subsequent improvisational opportunities during the extended solo, duo, and trio sections on ‘Electronika Mambo Musette’, ‘Civic Circus’ and ‘Méandres’ to great advantage. He is definitely a player to watch. Berckmans is excellent no matter what double-reed instrument he is playing, and wields a mean melodica on ‘Civic Circus’. Violinist Lauwers is equally comfortable whether he’s playing in a very disciplined, classical manner, or in a more unhinged jazz-rock style, and multi-reedist Kurt Budé chips in fine solos on ‘Electronika Mambo Musette’ (where he seems to be quoting Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ at one point) and ‘Méandres’.
Live captures an unusually energetic and vital performance by one of the all-time great European progressive bands.