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Rhythmix

Univers Zéro

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Album Review

Hey prog rock fans, here's another album by Univers Zero, which means it's time to get down! Not "down" in a good-time rock & roll sense, but rather really down: moody, dark, and with intimations of evil creeping in around the edges. In its 2002 incarnation, Univers Zero is mainly a vehicle for composer/drummer/keyboardist Daniel Denis, who continues his trend of toning down the hellish stuff heard to scariest effect on Heresie over two decades previously. Heresie was Univers Zero at its darkest, featuring low demonic chanting, wheezing harmonium drones, and a track called "Jack the Ripper." On 2002's Rhythmix, the doom and gloom are more subtle, Denis preferring the drama of multi-layered percussion and orchestral textures with a foundation of deep, sometimes mechanistic beats. This approach is hazardous for a prog rock band, particularly if keyboard synthesizers are responsible for generating a good deal of the "orchestral" sounds; catcalls from the peanut gallery about pretentiousness are almost inevitable. In the case of Univers Zero's prior release, 1999's The Hard Quest (much anticipated after a ten-year band hiatus), the problem was less bombast than an air of predictability and somewhat lackluster feel — Denis and friends occasionally sounded like Univers Zero-lite, or even a new age group in a decidedly bad mood. Rhythmix is punchier, more varied in its instrumental palette, and comparatively "Dense" (to borrow a track title from Ceux du Dehors, still the band's pinnacle). The sympathetic production is by Didier DeRoos (Uzed, Heatwave), and the core band is now a quartet, in addition to Denis featuring original Univers Zero member Michel Berckmans on oboe, English horn, and bassoon as well as Eric Plantain on electric bass and Bart Quartier on marimba and glockenspiel. Former bandmember Dirk Descheemaeker appears on only one track (with uncharacteristically skronky and squawking bass clarinet) and various guest musicians on trumpet, cello, flute, and accordion are featured elsewhere. Denis seems to prefer drums the size of water tanks and cymbals as big as flying saucers, so one might expect a percussive onslaught or two to rattle the windowpanes. Denis complies on "Rouages: Second Rotation," revisiting the "Rouages" theme from The Hard Quest, but here the medieval sounds of oboe, acoustic guitar, harpsichord, and church organ are overwhelmed by pummeling percussives and hissing synths, giving the impression that a cavalcade of knights and fair damsels is about to be crushed by a panzer division. Working in the album's favor is the comparative brevity of tracks (six minutes at the longest with a number of pieces in the three-minute range); compositions are therefore over before they become too repetitive and start wearing thin. Yet Denis' signature composing style, the moody and atmospheric interludes offering moments of respite amidst the driving full-ensemble pieces, and the consistent production across the 13 tracks provide the overall arc of a lengthy suite. There are touchstones to previous Univers Zero outings too; for example, the initial maddening minimalist rush of "The Fly-Toxmen's Land" gives way to a dramatic keyboard and trumpet flourish (featuring Belgian avant-prog trumpet mainstay Bart Maris) recalling "Bruit Dans les Murs" from Heatwave. Quartier's tuned percussion is noteworthy throughout Rhythmix, crisp and lively yet somehow not working against the ominous and unsettling undercurrents of Denis' music. Rhythmix might not conjure up the demons of Heresie-era Univers Zero, but the album would still work far better as a Nosferatu soundtrack than boombox accompaniment at a beach volleyball party. Get down!

Biography

Formed: 1974

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Formed in 1974, Belgium-based chamber rock band Univers Zero initially featured co-composers drummer Daniel Denis and guitarist Roger Trigaux joined by bassoonist Michel Berckmans, violinist Marcel Dufrane, bassist Christian Genet, violinist/violist Patrick Hanappier, and harmonium/spinet player Emmanuel Nicaise. The avant-prog group, one of the first Rock in Opposition bands along with Britain's Henry Cow, Sweden's Samla Mammas Manna, Italy's Stormy Six, and France's Etron Fou Leloublan, released...
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Rhythmix, Univers Zéro
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