Univers Zero – Clivages – Cuneiform Rune

by | Apr 23, 2010 | Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews | 0 comments

Univers Zero – Clivages – Cuneiform Rune 295, 66:27 ****:

(Michel Berckmans – bassoon, English horn, oboe, melodica; Kurt Budé – clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone; Pierre Chevalier – keyboards, glockenspiel; Daniel Denis – drums, percussion, sampler; Dimitri Evers – electric and fretless bass; Andy Kirk – guitar (tracks 2 & 5), percussion (track 2); Martin Lauwers – violin; Nicolas Denis – drums (track 10); Philippe Thuriot – accordion (tracks 1 & 10); Aurelia Boven – cello (track 10))

There has never been a consensus on just what pigeonhole to put Belgian instrumental group Univers Zero into. Chamber-music rock? Experimental art music? Atonal faux-classical? One thing is for sure: over the last three decades the ensemble has lived up to the dictionary meaning of avant-garde: those in the arts who create or apply new or experimental ideas and techniques.

Clivages marks the first time in half a decade that Univers Zero has entered the studio, which is good news for long-term listeners. This 66-minute, ten-track project coalesces what has made Univers Zero such a unique and demanding group for the past 30 years but the record also yields new inclinations. For one, compositional responsibility has been split to different band members, rather than relying on percussionist Daniel Denis’ leadership. This allows for both familiarity and surprise. Denis furnishes four pieces, while multi-reed player Michel Berckmans pens three, clarinetist/saxophonist Kurt Budé wrote two and guest guitarist Andy Kirk – a Univers Zero compatriot from the late seventies and on and off during the eighties – brings in one expansive work.

Univers Zero fans no doubt will find Denis’ material most gratifying and galvanizing. Opener “Les Kobolds” has an accessible, major-key arrangement propelled by Dimitri Evers’ electric bass, Pierre Chevalier’s keys, Berckmans’ bassoon and Denis’ always resourceful percussion. The melodies and tonal colors render a slightly Renaissance feel but harmonic shifts impart an underlying ominous persuasion. Mechanized “Earth Scream” is an industrial ambient soundtrack that could have been used for an imaginary documentary about dismal factories and acts as an overture to Denis’ lengthiest production, “Soubresauts,” a multilateral offering that adroitly amalgamates acoustic and electric instrumentation, classical and rock influences and phrases that exhibit both humor and solemnity. Denis references his previous achievements on the funereal and desolate “Les Cercles d’Horus,” with ashen drums, comparative keyboards and bass, and minor-key piano and cello.

Berckmans “Vacillements” focuses entirely on wind and strings and has a neo-classical slant that highlights Berckmans’ bassoon, Budé’s clarinet and Martin Lauwers’ violin. While “Apesanteur” is initially relatively similar the song is more contemporary due to a subtle groove, a rambling rhythm and reeds and violin that play counterpoint to Chevalier’s jazz-tinted keyboard embroidery. Berckmans’ final tune, “Retour de Foire,” has a splendidly shadowy arrangement akin to Bernard Hermann, and which enables strings, reeds and rhythm instruments to each provide distinct features while all contribute to the sublime theme.

Budé supplies two adventurous compositions. “Three Days” also concentrates on strings and winds, balances between minimalist phrasing and modest atonal elements and is essentially a warm-up for the album’s longest and most complex work, “Straight Edge.” Acoustic and electric pianos, various reeds, profuse percussion, mysterious voices and distorted electric bass flow through an evolving arrangement that moves from modernist classical to jazz-rock.

Like earlier Univers Zero outings, Clivages has a live-in-the-studio approach with minimal overdubs, superb instrument separation, bright EQ and frequency modulation that is impeccable. This is music that has outstanding sound realization, recommended for a high fidelity system.

1. Les Kobolds
2. Warrior
3. Vacillements
4. Earth Scream
5. Soubresauts
6. Apesanteur
7. Three Days
8. Straight Edge
9. Retour de Foire
10. Les Cercles d’Horus

— Doug Simpson

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