(All Album Reviews by Chuck AzEee!)
On their debut 1313, Univers Zero was anomaly to the western world in 1977, let alone the unforgiving commercialism of the music press, that hailed "punk" music as the "savior" and the death knell to the like of "FM" rock and its excess, and the counterbalance to disco. Progressive rock was barely breathing as the best the genre had to offer were fading away amongst the muck of their on weight, and the Camels and the Kansas' were carrying on, but in Belgium, a spark was growing, and a great group of classical and late 19th century chamber music enthusiasts, took the envelope that their forefathers, like Magma, Gentle Giant and Frank Zappa, pushed it to its extreme limit, therefore being what some classify as “rock in opposition.”
Bearing similarities to bands like Henry Cow and The Art Bears, Univers Zero was not satisfied with catering to the limitations of being called "rock" or "progressive", although the back bone of "Rock" is prevalent, but innovative and cleverly masked by the band's clear intent on creating a more accessible version of early 20th century classical music, with the beautiful atonality of the likes of Bartok and Stravinsky.
With little traces of electrical instruments, 1313 is a wonderful album, and highly creative for its time, especially when the influences of the time would suggest that it was "chic" to be banging your head or shaking your ass in skin tight leotards.
For fans of King Crimson circa Islands or Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, but 1313 is in a class by itself.
Album Rating: Five Stars.
It all starts here!
With 1313, alternatively titled Univers Zero, the fascinating band that was Univers Zero entered the music world, and what an entrance it was. This album was released near the end of the seventies, when, as we all know, punk was starting to push prog to the background, prog bands were beginning the change towards more commercial musical approaches, and the general consensus seemed to be that prog had had its heyday and now it was done. Nothing could be further from the truth. In America, avant-garde prog had already been kick-started by Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, with the Residents adding their own two cents for good measure. In Europe, however, it was only until classic prog started dying down that avant-garde took hold, predominantly through the Rock In Opposition movement founded by Henry Cow.
Univers Zero were a part of that movement’s beginnings (when it consisted of a mere five bands), and, in my humble opinion, they were the best of the lot, even after the movement expanded to double, maybe even triple in size. Univers Zero’s music is a strange hybrid of avant-garde chamber music and a definite tendency towards rock. In playing this style of music, they carved out a niche for themselves that many bands would soon attempt to emulate (with varied results), but even through today no bands have managed to equal the brilliance Univers Zero displayed in composing and playing their unique music. Of course, Univers Zero have their influences, particularly Magma, but they manage to incorporate those influences into their music and move past them with the end result that they create something truly superb and original.
As is always important in music, especially for bands that create a totally new style of music, the skill of the musicians is of highest importance. Thankfully, Univers Zero does not disappoint in this regard. Roger Trigaux on guitar is amazing (though this is best seen in his band Present, a Univers Zero offshoot), and Daniel Denis on drums is even better. Denis carries the tracks admirably, using a “less is more” philosophy, often going for decent lengths at a time without banging a single tom simply because the music did not need drumming there. Behind these two main musicians is a similar stellar cast, particularly on violin and related instruments, which are some of the main purveyors of this album’s dark mood.
Unlike the group’s later albums, 1313 is a short affair, clocking in well under forty minutes. In many ways, this is very good, as Univers Zero had not yet perfected their sound, and so extra material would likely have dragged the album down. Once they had further developed their sound, they began to write longer albums such as Heresie and Ceux Du Dehors, both of which near fifty minutes or more. On 1313 there isn’t a trace of filler to be had, and I attribute this at least in part to the album’s length (or lack thereof). The highlight track is the obvious choice, “Ronde,” the epic fifteen-minute opener that started blowing me away the first time I heard it. They would do better songs in this style later on (particularly the two longer songs on Ceux Du Dehors), but this song is still one hell of an album opener. From there, things stay about the same level. The two shorter tracks are both engaging pieces, and the longer tracks , particularly “Malaise,” are nearly as fabulous as “Ronde.”
On the whole, Univers Zero’s debut is a wonderfully concise affair that shows the way towards what was to come (following this album, the next three they released are all masterpieces) while still maintaining an identity of its own that is always fun to hear. This is probably not the best place to start with Univers Zero (that would be Ceux Du Dehors), but if you are a fan of discovering a band’s output in chronological order, this album is not a bad place to start, just keep in mind that it gets better on future releases. This album is an exciting and engaging listen that shows how, right from the start, Univers Zero were prepared to get down to business. And that’s exactly what they did, churning out a brilliant album on their first try. I’m going to give this one a very solid B+ (excellent) rating, and I hope that you will be convinced to check out Univers Zero the next time you get the chance. If you are worried that they might be too “out there” for your taste, keep in mind that while they are definitely avant-garde progressive rock, they are not dissonant at all, really. Highly recommended!