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coverpic flag Belgium - Full Moon 158 - 08/06/09

Univers Zero
Relaps, Archives 1984-1986
Cuneiform Records

It's a shame we haven't visited the exciting musical universe of Belgian Univers Zero (UZ) earlier here at Luna Kafé. If you're in for ceremonious, pretentious, pompous (well, occasionally and primarily the piano and drums), humourless (so it seems at least), profound European, mainly instrumental music with tendencies towards classical of the challenging kind, avant-garde, improvisation and a bit of quirky rock and jazz elements, UZ is definitely the thing. The slogan on the official home page is: "If Stravisky had a rock band, it would sound like this...", which is as accurate a short description as can be. Well, it might not sound very tasty to the average pop and rock oriented listener, but just you wait a minute or 65. The sound and music of UZ is unique, and you might be in for quite a few spine chilling experiences if you give them a chance. French Art Zoyd and Magma are probably the only other bands that have ploughed some adjacent soil to UZ's, as far as I know. In fact UZ used to collaborate with Art Zoyd in earlier days and UZ drummer, main composer and indisputable leader Daniel Denis was a member of the band in the 1990s and also briefly of Magma in the first half of the 1970s.

Relaps is a collection of high quality live recordings from the mid 1980s with compositions from the two studio albums Uzed and Heatwave. The Uzed line-up of 1984 was a quintet including clarinets, saxophones, cello and keyboards; the Heatwave counterpart of 1985-86 a septet augmented by guitar, violin, viola (no cello anymore) and a second keyboard player. At first I was not sure if the album would work as a good introduction to the band for new listeners. I guess it's not the worst. At this era the band's music was more electric/electronic due to more keyboards of the modern kind and included less reed (no bassoon or oboe) and other acoustic instruments compared to the earlier line-ups and albums when the label 'chamber rock' was (even) more appropriate. Still, Dirk Descheemaeker's saxophone dominates along with his clarinets and Patrick Hanappier's violin and viola on the tracks from 1985 and 86. It's hard to notice that the latter line-up includes two keyboard players.

The best about the UZ music is the lack of real solos. Well, there might be the occasional sax or violin solo here, but it's the interplay and music as a whole that really counts. The instruments support each other, no need for the obligatory jazz slots where each ego is entitled to a solo part. Instead the interplay makes the music breathtaking, dramatic, mystical and/or ominous, being it composed or improvised. All of it simultaneously at the very best. There are some more cacophonous moments in between. They are outnumbered by the better parts.

For old UZ fans Relaps include "Ligne Claire", a previously unreleased track. Unfortunately it's only a four minute extract of a number that used to last longer. It's interesting to see how the band handles the music in a live setting compared to the studio versions. Also there are a couple of tracks off Uzed performed by the Heatwave line-up. We can compare the free style version of "L'Etrange Mixture du Docteur Schwartz" of the 1985-86 septet with the more ordinary version of the 1984 quintet. They are not that different, but the latter is of course a bit more structured and the former more energetic, and fun! Relaps shows a full-blown tight band with members that know what they're into. The more I listen to it, the more stunned I get. Highly recommended both to new and old supporters of Univers Zero, along with the rest of the band's production! Cuneiform Records has released or re-released them all.

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You may also want to check out our Univers Zero articles/reviews: Clivages, Phosphorescent Dreams.

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