"Xenantaya," the nearly 13-minute opener on Univers Zero's Live
CD, includes all the hallmarks of an extended-form UZ piece: a mysterious and ominous air, melodic themes and variations suggesting Central European folk music, and dramatic dynamic shifts from one section to the next, all driven ever forward by composer Daniel Denis' restlessly inventive drumming. Despite its familiar architecture, even Univers Zero diehards might be forgiven for believing that "Xenantaya" is a newly penned Denis opus, but it first appeared on The Hard Quest
, the much-anticipated 1999 UZ "reunion" disc. Some listeners found The Hard Quest
to be rather disappointing, continuing the group's dark and foreboding qualities from the '70s and '80s but somewhat lacking in commitment. Well, that's certainly not the case here -- there's so much drive and energy that "Xenantaya" is rendered nearly unrecognizable when compared with its original incarnation. Indeed, all the compositions on Live
appeared on earlier studio recordings, yet fresh excitement is brought to each and every one of them here. This is arguably the most high-octane release ever for Univers Zero, a band that now has ten CDs to its credit and a history stretching back to the mid-'70s.
has several things going for it, including the obvious fact that UZ are indeed performing live before enthusiastic audiences at two June 2005 concert dates, one in Belgium and the other in France. The bandmembers -- mainstays Denis and double-reedist Michel Berckmans
, relative newcomer Eric Plantain on bass, and new faces Peter Vandenberghe on keyboards, Kurt Budé on reeds, and Martin Lauwers on violin -- are obviously fired up and ready to give it their all before the UZ faithful. But some special credit might also be directed toward Vandenberghe, a wizard of the electric keyboards who has proven his mettle in landmark Belgian avant-prog and avant-garde jazz outfits like X-Legged Sally, Flat Earth Society
, and Pierre Vervloesem's Grosso Modo. The fact is, all three of the preceding discs since UZ's re-formation (The Hard Quest
, and Implosion
) have featured Denis multi-tracked on keyboards as well as drums, and although he is a fine keyboardist and samplist who unfailingly conjures up unique voicings, unsettling harmonics, and alien industrial atmospheres, he doesn't have the sheer chops of someone like Vandenberghe. "Xenantaya" is a case in point, as Vandenberghe unleashes a solo that truly pushes the typical UZ envelope -- he ratchets up the intensity level on what sounds like a twisted variant of a Fender Rhodes in a possessed fusion band, with Denis and Plantain providing solid support every step of the way.
On "Méandres" from 2004's Implosion
, it is Budé's turn to shine with a freewheeling clarinet solo that again eclipses anything on the earlier studio version. And yet, it would be a mistake to think that Live
is noteworthy only for its high-energy renditions and high-five solo turns, because the disc also beautifully displays the group's chamberesque qualities. Even those who bemoan Univers Zero's increasingly synthesizer-based music starting with Uzed
in 1988 will find plenty to love here -- notably the CD-closing "Toujours Plus a l'Est" from the 1983 Crawling Wind
EP (reissued with extra tracks by Cuneiform in 2001). The Crawling Wind
studio version of "Toujours" is a perfect merger of European folk and classical music with the drive and power of Rock in Opposition
avant-prog -- chamber music elevated rather than crushed by rock sensibilities (always a controversial assertion). Here, performed live, all the complexities, subtleties, and nuances are present (and well recorded), exemplified by a lovely interlude during which the instruments drop sequentially away leaving Lauwers' solitary violin, followed by a build-up into a final full-band thematic statement and more soaring Budé clarinet over a delicate fade-out. At this moment and several others, Univers Zero sound particularly inspired and -- dare it be suggested for a band that has dwelled on the dark side for so long -- even optimistic
is an indispensable release for anyone who believes that "Bartók
" and "rock" can fit comfortably in the same sentence.