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Univers Zero - Uzed CD (album) cover

UZED

Univers Zero

 

RIO/Avant-Prog

4.30 | 343 ratings

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siLLy puPPy
4 stars While the small nation of Belgium was notably left out of the first wave of the progressive rock boom of the early 70s, the land between France and the Netherlands redeemed itself in the latter half of the decade with excellent bands like Cos and Aksak Maboul making a mark on the scene. Of course, no story would be complete with the most successful of the Belgian prog bands of all, namely UNIVERS ZERO which was a part of a new dense and challenging type of avant-prog chamber rock that was a vital ingredient in the ultimate antithesis to the punk and disco scenes that was called Rock In Opposition. While the band's first two albums '1313' and the even darker and scarier 'Heresie' implemented a new stylistic approach that mixed heavy rock elements with mostly acoustic instrumentation with major influence from Bart'k and Stravinsky, the band sort of developed a musical style that hit a musical cul-de-sac by reaching its logical conclusion.

Starting with the band's third album 'Ceux Du Dehors,' UNIVERS ZERO starting lightening up the gloom and doom and marked a major stylistic shift that adopted more electronic sounds, various ethnic musical scales as well as a more eclectic palette of compositional fortitude. Essentially a musical collective with a rotating cast of members led by founder / drummer / chief songwriter Daniel Denis, UZ continued to change its sound drastically without leaving behind the off-kilter angularities that made its particular brand of avant-prog so utterly unique. After 1981's 'Ceux Du Dehors,' UZ embarked on a relentless touring schedule and delayed the released of the fourth album for three years. The four track EP 'Crawling Wind' appeared in between but it wasn't until 1984 that UZ unleashed a new album in the form of UZED. The title basically refers to the initials of the band's name UNIVERS ZERO. The letter U plus ZED, another name for the letter Z in many European nations.

Denis was the only member left of the lineup fo the first three albums and therefore UZED developed a very different sound due to the emphasis on different instrumentation. Andre Mergen's cello and sax playing are emphasized as well as the more aggressive sounds of Michael Delory's electric guitar playing techniques which were a stark contrast to UZ's previous guitar sounds of former co-founder Roger Trigaux. Also new to the band was keyboardist Jean-Luc Plouvier whose role was teased out into completely new experimentations which would be further explored on the band's following album 'Heatwave.' Despite all the changes, the compositions overall are firmly rooted in the classical musical settings that earlier albums implemented. Likewise the dissonance and atonality are scattered around in abundance but not in a suffocating manner. The album seems to balance the darker mood settings of earlier albums with more moments of uplifting splendor.

Perhaps the most immediate distinction from what came before is the heavier use of rock instrumentation and bombast along with a much easier to follow melodic approach that implements not only infinitely less darkened musical scales such as the Middle Eastern influences on the opening 'Pr'sage,' but also a more focused effort on more cyclical loops that add something to latch onto rather than the long drawn out meandering passages that enshrouded the mysterious musical canvas on 'Heresie.' The shortest track of the album 'L'Etrange Mixture du Docteur Schwartz' may clock in at slightly less than four minutes but rocks the house with an incessant pummelation of the drums and an equally feisty attack of the piano stabs, clarinet assaults and rampaging time signatures run amok at reckless high tempo velocities. Likewise Christian Genet's bass slapping is off the charts as he channels his best Christ Squire and really lets loose.

'C'lesta (for Chantal)' distinguishes itself with guest musician Marc Verbist contributing haunting violin sounds and Delory providing the heaviest doses of electric guitar on the album including an unexpected solo near the end however the track starts out bereft of rock elements for the first few minutes as a choppy piano performance ekes out a lugubrious violin and occasional percussive drive. It's not until the last couple of minutes that the track turns to the dark side with an industrial sounding mechanical drive which allows the guitar off the leash and proceeds to go friggin bonkers. 'Parade' is the cheeriest track on board with a 'somewhat' less darkened approach but still performs the expected knotty angularities in a relentless stampede of time signature workouts and instrumental interplay. The track with its rock elements can remind more of King Crimson at its most energetic moments with the usual chamber rock instruments on board. The hairpin twists and turns also conspire to create one of the more dramatic tracks on UZED.

The final 'Emmanations' is not only the longest track on UZED which by clocking in at almost 16 minutes blows away the running time of the rest of the tracks, but also is clearly the highlight. Given the proper time length to slowly percolate slowly and ratchet up the tension, this closer unleashes the newly discovered use of electronic synthesizers in the UZ sound to nurture an ominous stormy cloud cover of sound while the usual chamber rock elements struggle in the dark to find the right riff to latch onto. Once a groove and a riff are found, the instrumental interplay pretty much follows a repetitive cyclical melodic construct that relies on an infinite series of variations to paint a dramatic soundscape. Not to say that twists and turns do not occur but the track is amazingly stable given its sprawling domain over the album's run. The most startling change of the entire album comes just past the 12 minute mark of 'Emmanations' where the it abruptly turns into an industrial echoey soundscape with muddied vocals whispering from the darkness while a drunken violin emerges from the backdrop. A frightening rhythmic pulse evokes more of the sounds of early Einst'rzende Neubauten than anything out of the UZ playbook and ends the album with while presaging the band's next move.

UZED may have lacked the uniformity of its predecessors (especially the first two albums) but made up for it in its sheer audacity to simultaneously explore new sonic textures in myriad directions. While generally considered a transitional album, UZED nevertheless successfully fleshes out many of the subtle aspects that the band was striving for and while not quite reaching the electronic based apex that 'Heatwave' would achieve, the brackish waters of the former acoustic chamber rock elements along with the heavier rock guitar and synthesizer sequences makes for an exciting avant-prog journey throughout the album's five diverse tracks. At this point Denis proved himself to be a master of reinventing the sound as he conducted a whole new cast of characters to bring the early Rock In Opposition sounds into the new decade. While UNIVERS ZERO would never recreate the stunning perfection of '1313' and 'Heresie,' albums like UZED only proved that the intricate creative fusion of classical, chamber music and progressive rock had hardly been exhausted at this point and that in many ways the avant-prog scene was only getting started. A tough listen for sure but ultimately worth the effort.

siLLy puPPy | 4/5 |

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