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Music Review: Univers Zero – Relaps: Archives 1984-1986

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Belgian band Univers Zero are the originators, and sole practitioners of a style of music that has come to be known as “chamber rock.” Combining the driving rhythms of rock with classical of an extremely dark vintage, they have come up with a sound that is incredibly unique. Since their debut, 1313 was released in 1977, Univers Zero’s personnel shuffles have been nearly constant, and they took most of the 1990’s off. But like some sort of malevolent creature from the underground, they keep coming back.

Relaps: Archives 1984-1986 captures the band onstage at a fascinating point in their career trajectory. Having exhausted the somewhat acoustic and gothic influences of their early work, Univers Zero was really into amplifying their sound in the mid-Eighties. There is also a marked progressive and fusion influence in the music.

The eight tracks contained on Relaps were recorded at various sites in Germany and Belgium from 1984-86. All of the songs come from two albums, UZED (1984) and Heatwave (1987) except for “Ligne Claire.”

Relaps opens up with three songs from UZED, recorded in Hannover, Germany in 1984. From the beginning notes of “L’Etrange Mixture Du Docteur Schwartz,” we are in for an interesting ride. The sax opening gives way to a complex arrangement with time changes galore. The combination of saxes, clarinet, and cello, with the more rock associated bass, drums and keyboards is compelling.

The ten-minute “Presage” follows, and reminds me more of King Crimson or Magma circa 1974 than anything else. The third track from this concert, “Parade” sounds like an extension of “Presage,” with the addition of a brilliant clarinet solo from Dirk Descheemaeker towards the end.

The other three-song set on Relaps was recorded in 1985 at a Belgian concert. At this show, Univers Zero previewed tracks that were to later be included on Heatwave. The song “Heatwave” begins the set, with a much more modern sound than previously heard. The drums are right up front, and the introductory sax leads into a song that would not have sounded out of place on an early Utopia album.

At 18:10, “The Funeral Plain” is the longest track on Relaps. The hometown crowd seems to adore this one, even though the studio version had yet to be released. It is no wonder, the song has a very foreboding introduction, which just gets darker as the song progresses. The rhythmic drive that emerges is relentless, and is as arresting as the “Supper’s Ready” segment “Apocalypse in 9/8” by Genesis. The frenzied latter part builds to a monumental crescendo, then slowly resolves itself in a most satisfying manner. It is little wonder that the crowd gave them such an ovation at the end.

The other extended track, “Emanations” (12:34) was recorded at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival in Germany, 1986. Reflecting its venue, this is the most jazz- oriented track on the set. I hear snatches of fusion masters such as Jack Johnson-era Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and even Tony Williams Lifetime here. All were undoubtedly influential, but there are also some excellent classical segments reminiscent of Bartok, and even Stravinsky.

Univers Zero are a difficult band to pigeon-hole. They are relentlessly experimental, and this set captures a glimpse of them at one of their many musical peaks. On one level, Relaps is an amazing juxtaposition of some very disparate musical genres. More importantly however, it is a record that is thoroughly engaging, at times stunning, and absolutely fascinating all the way through. It is one of the rare ones that rewards repeated listens.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Sole practitioners? I’ve never heard these guys, but what you describe sounds a lot like the symphonic rock of ELO or someone like the Moody Blues to me. I’m most definitely intrigued.

    -Glen

  • Greg Barbrick

    Glen,
    There is nothing remotely “pop” about Univers Zero though. Their music is all instrumental and very dark. I still think you would dig it though.

    -Greg

  • http://homepage.mac.com/rlmorel/.Public/slut.gif Dave (in MA)

    Nothing like ELO or the Moody Blues. Think more like Henry Cow or The Muffins.

  • uduwudu

    Not quite sole practitioners. There is Art Zoyd and Present to consider. All 3 bands have links.

    oh yes, more the COMPLETE opposite of ELO and Moodies. All instrumental and nothing poppy at all. If it must be related to rock think Zeppelin’s bowed guitar solo and Friends from LZ 3. All instrumental and stunnningly beautiful if occasionally quite evil. Sometimes symphonic and grand. Always fascinating music. Clivages fro a start makes everyone else sound ham fisted.