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by Univers Zero
Cuneiform Records, 2002

        Univers Zero  may be the best band you have never heard. This group
of Belgians, centered around Daniel Denis on keyboards or drums, and Michel
Berckmans on winds, has been in existence for almost 30 years, with a long
hiatus in the ‘90s. Now it is back, providing a unique sound which throws
together all genres of music in a dark, postmodern architecture.

The more you know about modern “classical” music, the more you will appreciate Univers Zero’s references: to Stravinsky, the French Impressionists, and the twelve-tonal or atonal music which dominated much of the twentieth century. Their rhythms, drumming, use of electric guitars and short pieces are definitely rock-oriented, but they add in instruments characteristic of classical music which are rarely if ever used in rock: woodwinds, harpsichords, cello, marimba, glockenspiel. These are all played by an ever-changing roster of European instrumentalists. If that wasn’t enough, they sometimes add in the kind of accordion usually associated with romantic French folk music. A weird mix indeed!

Their sound is admittedly difficult for American tastes used to pretty, sentimental, simple ear candy, or dumb-ass hard-driving rock. Their musical vision is unremittingly ironic, full of deliberately sour passages, black humor, industrial evocations, and surrealistic fantasies. They will combine a transformation of Renaissance dance music and the sound of factory cogwheels, or a funereal circus march with garage rock chords and synthesizer bleats, or tinkling music-box bells with eerie drones. This is what Europeans can do: they can wrap the millennia of their grim history in the millennia of their musical heritage. It is not something that easily crosses the hopeful Atlantic to a land of refuge. Yet there is nothing like it here, and listening to Univers Zero is a glimpse into something very special, out beyond our familiar shores.

Hannah M.G. Shapero 10/10/02 Listen to samples & Buy CDs/DVDs here

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Crawling Wind by Univers Zero Cuneiform Records, 2001 (re-release of 1983 collection) http://www.cuneiformrecords.com If any band could be called “unique,” it would be Belgium’s Univers Zero. Beginning in the ‘70s, the group, with constantly changing personnel, (though centered on drummer Daniel Denis, with bassist Guy Segers, violinist Patrick Hanappier among others) has created a sound which merges jazz, “world,” modern classical, progressive rock and synthesizer, and avant-garde noise into a weird and wonderful mix. According to the liner notes, they originally played jazz and rock, but decided that these genres didn’t represent a truly “European” sound. To find that sound, they adopted instruments which are rarely if ever used in rock, such as violins, oboes, clarinets, harpsichord, harmonium (a kind of accordion-like keyboard), cello, and bassoon. Along with the “classical” instruments, they explored and found influences in folk and medieval music, as well as in twentieth-century “classical” and avant-garde music, such as that of Bartok, Stravinsky, and the American Charles Ives. The result is an erudite, clever, but rather forbidding sound in which you will find few comforting chords and no sweet ambient drift. Their harmonies are sour and harsh, delineating a music of irony and darkness. It is the musical world of Europe after the wars, smoke-filled, bitter, nocturnal, ruinous and devoid of innocence. And yet the sound is fascinating, with all sorts of musical influences to follow. For instance, the first cut on Crawling Wind, “Toujours plus a l’est” (Always more towards the east) is in a fast Balkan 7/4 dance rhythm, borrowing from the folk music of Bulgaria. Cut 3, “Central Belgium in the Dark,” is a homage to Charles Ives’ “Central Park in the Dark,” and features, in answer to Ives, a kind of weird circus parade march. And cut 5, “Triomphe des Mouches” (The Triumph of the Flies) is a compelling and often horrific piece mixing funereal shamanic drumming with bizarre noise improvisations and string screams. Univers Zero is almost completely unknown in the USA. Its music is complex, difficult, and not at all in the “comfort zone.” But this group (which is still sporadically active after 30 years) deserves to be better known among those of us who are brave enough to dare this listening adventure. My ongoing congratulations to Cuneiform Records for finding unusual music and making the adventure possible. Hannah M.G. Shapero, EER-MUSIC.com 12/1/01 Listen to samples & Buy CDs/DVDs here

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The Hard Quest by Univers Zero Cuneiform Records, 1999 http://www.cuneiformrecords.com When I first heard this album, I was astounded. I had never heard anything like it before: strange, wry, even twisted jazz-rock, played on CLASSICAL INSTRUMENTS. That means harpsichord, winds, piano, classical percussion, and violin! There were chord changes and harmonies from Bartok and Stravinsky and Prokofieff and any number of other 20th century European composers, yet the rhythms were jazz, underscored with jazz drumming. Then there were strong influences of Renaissance dance music…and yet later on in the album (track 10, “Xenantaya”), they broke out into a hard rock sound with Middle Eastern-inspired melodies. What’s going on here? What goes on here is Belgian surrealism turned into music. Univers Zero is a Belgian band, who have been around for years, and who are almost completely unknown in the USA (and possibly incomprehensible to American listeners). I have searched my musical memory for anything that might be comparable to their unique sound, and the only thing I can find is the music for Cirque du Soleil. But though this does indeed sound like circus music at times (track 2 is actually called “Civic Circus”), it would have to be a circus of the strange and the mad, with clowns all in black. These dissonant, cynical harmonies are certainly not music for cheerful diversion. Yet it is highly catchy. If you listen to this album a few times, you may find this music repeating inside your head like the memory of a weird dream that won’t go away. Although there are a few duller tracks that ramble on, most of this album maintains a chilly, driving intensity, devoid of any sentimentality or New Age sweetness. Tired old Europe has come up with this amazing new music, distilled from millennia of its miserable history. My congratulations go to Cuneiform Records who consistently manage to discover and release some of the most adventurous music I’ve ever heard. HMGS rating: 8 Hannah M.G.Shapero, EER-MUSIC.com 5/14/00

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