Univers Zéro – Hérésie – Cuneiform Rune 313, 63:10 ****:
(Michel Berckmans – oboe, bassoon; Daniel Denis – drums, percussion; Patrick Hanappier – violin, viola; Guy Segers – bass, voice; Roger Trigaux – guitar, piano, organ, harmonium; Vincent Motoulle – keys (track 1))
There are those who combine musical genres. There are those who fashion genres. And there are those who have no demarcated genre, who create music not easily defined. In that rarified company resides Belgian group Univers Zéro, who formed in 1974 to carve an aesthetic that borrows from neo-classical, postmodernism and the rock avant-garde but has no allegiance to any movement but their own.
Hérésie is Univers Zéro’s sophomore release, initially issued in 1979. It remains the ensemble’s magnum opus, a menacingly atmospheric effort filled with juxtaposition: it melds rock and classical, medieval strains with modern tonalities, and beauty with nervous tension. Although the album has been reissued almost continually since its inception, Cuneiform’s re-mastered edition is the best version available. The original multi-track tapes were used for a focused remix that brings greater clarity to the instruments and arrangements; new artwork was designed for the Digipak package; and there is a 16-page booklet that highlights the band’s history through the recording of Hérésie and examines the philosophical, cultural and sociological details that influenced the material. Longtime fans will welcome a special bonus track of mid-1970s number, “Chaos Hermétique.”
When Hérésie came out it was dubbed chamber music for the Apocalypse and over three decades later the potency endures: the viola and violin, oboe and bassoon, bass and drums, guitar and various keyboards still provide a darkly dramatic quality that veers from chaotic rock-based structures to elements that could have been exploited to score an existentialist horror movie. The epic 23-minute opener, “La Faulx,” fulfills that notion: the ominous introduction is accented by scraped strings, spectral electronics and sinister percussion. When disembodied voices emerge the sense of a distant past and a faint present coalesce into an eerie, aural landscape. Hearing this with the lights out is a hallucinatory experience.
Listening to aptly titled “Jack the Ripper” is no less disturbing. The 13-minute serial killer character study mingles gloomy harmonium and strings with blunt percussion and a pointedly sharp violin. Several segments are driven by caustic rhythmic passages that are matched by dissonant violin and viola: the result is a bleakly humored demeanor. “Vous Le Saurez En Temps Voulu” has a similar development: it commences with a sympathetic chamber music theme and then builds up as drums, bass and percussion become more and more intense. As the tune moves forward oboe and bassoon enter and a slightly gothic characteristic takes over that is both moody and mordantly droll.
“Chaos Hermétique” is a harbinger of things to come. The 12-minute, 1975 piece – the version presented here is the earliest existing incarnation – shows Univers Zéro trying on an atypical style, much more rock oriented, as the group begins to search for its own identity. The repetitious, electric strategy that relies on guitar and keyboards is akin to the then-popular, European progressive rock factions.
Engineer Didier de Roos does wonders with the new remix. The drums and percussion have more emphasis: the bass drum, for example, is tuned lower and adds distinct sonic impact. Some retuning fixes sore spots that ruined the original mix. And the frequency response is outstanding: better compression and reverb now offer a multidimensional auditory representation.
1. La Faulx
2. Jack the Ripper
3. Vous Le Saurez En Temps Voulu
4. Chaos Hermétique
— Doug Simpson