How do you base an entire review on one portion of one song? I could write this entire piece on the first 6 minutes of “La Faulx” and be satisfied in the thought that I steered no one wrong.
Univers Zero formed in 1974 and recorded their first, initially self titled album (renamed ‘1313’) in 1977. Due to their extremely complex arrangements, dense chord structures and heavy use of double reeded woodwinds like oboe and bassoon alongside violin, cello, harmonium and a rock rhythm section of kit drums and electric bass, terms like “Chamber prog” have been used in descriptions of the band. The first album I bought from them had a sticker on the cover that simply stated “If Stravinsky had a rock band, this would be it.” It was too weird for me to pass up.
There are very few bands that have kept their grip as tightly on me as UZ. I have some favorites, take Motorhead, for example; I like them, and I know why I like them. Same thing with Funkadelic or Aphex Twin for that matter. It’s tangible and you can put your finger on it. Everyone has some favorite bands and anyone familiar with Motorhead would not question you on WHY you would like such a thing. There is another class of “like” though (Superlike?) It goes beyond the usual descriptors of “pleasant tolerance” and gets at you on a cellular level. You hear something and it just instantly vibrates you to the core. My girlfriend in 1998 claimed the Dave Matthews Band had that affect on her. I thought playing them in the bedroom would be like pushing a magic sex button, and I am pretty sure it was. I totally expected to lose my virginity to her within 8 seconds of getting her alone in a room with a CD player. It never happened. It was probably me. I’m sure she was “DTF,” but if that irritating swine was polluting the room with his howl, it instantly caused me to regard her like a homeless man who had pissed himself after a second helping of asparagus at the soup kitchen. I guess that statement could be taken a number of ways, and really, any way is fine because it all totals up to the same end result. Yes, Dave Matthews Bland certainly touched something in my girl, but he also inadvertently touched something inside of me, and his hands were all clammy and date-rapey and he clearly didn’t know what he was grasping for in the dark.
Bad memories, I’ll digress.
I first bought UZ’s 1982 masterpiece “Ceux Du Dehors” unheard on recommendation from a friend who was helping me really dig my heels into the European jazzrock styles of the mid 70’s. He got me hip to the whole “Rock In Opposition” scene and Ceux was an album that was on top of his list. It gripped me instantly and has yet to slacken it’s hold. I eventually wound up tracking down their 1979 opus “Heresie” just to hear more. Where Ceux hits immediately right out of the gate with odd time drum figures and prog-nerd spazziness, Heresie’s opening salvo of the 25 minute ‘La Faulx’ would unfold slowly like the mammoth, stinking bud of the titan arum plant with the darkest hues and it’s oppressive stench buried in the dissonance of the strings and woodwinds. It seethes, it throbs, it lurches and it shambles for the first 6 minutes through some of the most suffocating darkness ever committed to a modern recording. I don’t remember what I was doing when I first listened to it, but whatever it was, I wasn’t doing it anymore. Heresie only contains 3 tracks. None take less than 12 minutes to complete, and all basically take the same shape. Frightening modern compositional wizardry book-ended with some of the most milk-curdling aharmonic scree this side of ‘Threnody For Hiroshima.’ At 6 minutes, a guttural, wordless group vocalization begins that can only be described as heaving. This is some of the most freaky music ever recorded. There is a 3 minute interlude on “Ceux du DeHors” called “La Musique de Erich Zann” in reference to the Lovecraft short story of the same name (well, I’m sure it’s titled that in French) where a lodger at a run down flophouse overhears music coming from an apartment on the top floor of his building. The lodger is both attracted and repulsed by the weird melodies and noises that are coming from the top floor so he decides he needs to meet the musician, Zann. Indescribable cosmic horror ensues, brought on by the senseless, autonomic viol playing of the mute Erich Zann, who is clearly stone dead by the end of the story, frightened to death by his own unearthly music. I have always wanted to know what music Lovecraft was hearing in his head when he wrote this in 1921. In a time before death metal, before Elvis, or before avant garde jazz where nothing, save maybe Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre” or Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor” was probably all he had to go on for an idea of the kind of creepy music that could inspire the cosmos to open up and yawn it’s vilest secrets into the face of the stories protagonist. Heresie lies somewhere between whatever it was Erich Zann was playing, Emerson Lake and Palmer and say, a Danny Elfman soundtrack.
Heresie deserves attention from The Bloodsprayer’s readership because of the downright horrific sounds of the opening of the record, but the rest of the bands recorded output really should not be ignored either. Ceux Du Dehors, 1313, Crawling Wind and the recently released odds-and-sods collection of their 1984-1986 lineup, Relaps, are all necessary listens if you like Heresie, probably before you listen to Heresie, as Heresie probably isn’t the best place to start with them as it is uncharacteristically sombre. They are a remarkable group who has been stricken their entire history with financial difficulties, lineup changes, and indefinite hiatuses, but they have always been anchored by the (remarkable) fusion drummer and head composer, Daniel Denis, who maintains activity with a current lineup that includes another founding member and songwriter, woodwind player Michel Berckmans. The newer material is a good deal more electronic based, but it still keeps to the original spirit of the group.
Appreciation for Heresie or any album by Univers Zero should not be limited to the typical snobby, prog obsessed shut-ins, but rather any fan of music who has a tooth for a fair amount of dissonance and a challenging listen. (read: suicidal black metal, power electronics, post metal/rock, fans of Mr. Bungle, Meshuggah, Radiohead, Rush, Opeth). The challenge will be met with reward though, as there are little nuggets of lasting melody that WILL get stuck in your head as UZ, for all their tightly woven advanced harmony and (at times) impenetrable wall of shifting rhythmic interplay, will still hit you with a hook. It’s not a hook you will be ready for and it’s not a hook you are used to hearing, but I’ll be damned if I don’t actually get caught humming this stuff sometimes.
Heresie was remastered and re-released in 2010 by Cuneiform records. Preview it and then order it, and EVERYTHING from the band here from Cuneiform records, one of the single coolest record labels in history for releasing and keeping in print as much unsaleable, high minded “academic” music as they do. While you are there, order other awesome albums from The Muffins, Guapo, Upsilon Acrux, The Claudia Quintet and some Soft Machine live albums. If you like Univers Zero, very little on Cuneiform will disappoint.