Gothic chamber prog from the mighty Univers Zero, back with a vengeance.
Bill Tilland 2002-11-20
Judging from the auditory evidence of their previous "comeback" release,1999's The Hard Quest, Univers Zero appeared to be a Goth rock chamber music anachronism whose time had passed.
While the music on the 1999 CD was never less than competent, it sounded almost polite, without the ferocity and vitality of the classic Univers Zero recordings of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was no longer music that mattered, and drummer, composer and group leader Daniel Denis, accompanied only by reed players Michel Berckmans and Dirk Descheemaeker from the original group, sounded somewhat tentative or perhaps disengaged.
But indications of Univers Zero's demise were premature, because the group is back with a vengeance on this newest recording. Berckmans is still on board, and his oboe, bassoon and English horn remain a major part of the group's mediaeval chamber music sound.
Core members of the new ensemble also include Bart Quartier on Marimba and Glockenspiel and Eric Plaintain on electric bass, with Denis doubling on keyboards (both acoustic and synthesized) and harmonium. Guest appearances on cello, flute, piccolo, bass clarinet, trumpet, acoustic guitar and accordion give this CD a textural richness and variety that The Hard Quest lacked, but the real strength comes from Denis, not only because of his powerful, creative drumming, but also because of his skilful use of synth textures for colouristic effects - jabbing pizzicato strings, gongs, wailing choirs and the like, but all done with taste and restraint.
The other major reason for the group's return to form on this recording is the prominent bass work of Plantain. Inexplicably, a strong bass presence was almost totally lacking on The Hard Quest, but earlier Univers Zero recordings always featured a heavy, throbbing, zeuhl-style bass in the manner of the classic French prog rock group Magma. Denis frequently played unison lines with the bass (as he does on this recording), for an even more visceral rhythmic thrust.
Like The Hard Quest, this CD also has the virtue of thematic variety; there are thirteen pieces, rather than the long, meandering epics of the earlier recordings, which gives Denis a chance to show off his compositional skills, and allows various instruments (flute, bass clarinet, marimba) to be showcased on different pieces.
So without ever entirely losing the brooding, obsessive, slightly sinister, minor-key melancholia that has always represented Univers Zero at its best, Denis manages to stretch the formula in all sorts of ways on this recording - texturally, rhythmically, compositionally - making for a very sophisticated, satisfying and by no means anachronistic result.