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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Univers Zero

Live

Review by Gary Hill

The first live album from Univers Zero, as good as this one sounds it begs the question, "why did they wait so long?" For fans of jazz/classical oriented prog a bit like Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Univers Zero should be on their short list. This disc shows that the band is a force to be reckoned with in the live venue. While you won't find a lot of traditional rock instruments, these guys create their music sans vocals and sans guitar. Instead they use classical instruments like oboe, violin, English horn and bassoon along with more jazz instrumentation like saxophone and clarinet. There are keyboards and electric bass in the mix. The end result is a dynamic blend of jazz, classical and rock music that takes a while to fully permeate the listener's mind, but when it does, it's a real winner.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Xenantaya
Starting very gradually with ambient tones, as the instruments begin to rise from there the tone becomes one of a dramatic, but understated, world music texture. This feels like it would make great soundtrack music as the instruments play together in neo-classical veins, rising ever so slowly and mysteriously from nothingness. Eventually a killer-rocking groove rises out from this. The music takes on a funk nature through the bass line, but more middle Eastern tones continue to play over the top in a very tasty fashion. This really works exceptionally well. This is an exceptionally potent blending of rock, world textures and jazz to create a soundscape that is both unique and entertaining. They pull in varying musical structures and progressions while still maintaining the overall structure and seeming to rework the main themes in differing ways. Eventually they drop it back to the more sedate, while still keeping the same musical themes. After this it returns to the more rocking themes in very dramatic ways. They manage to throw a few curve balls with some varying musical excursions, and it even feels just a little Zappa-like at times. This one is pretty incredible. I can't picture a better opener for the disc than this nearly 13-minute track.

Civic Circus
This one comes in with a rocking, jazzy driving beat, then moves into more playful territory. They drop it to an oddly structured mellower segment than bring it up as some sort of twisted playtime tune. This one moves through a number of interesting changes taking on all kinds of different textures but never really loses the listener. It's an interesting, and rather captivating ride. It even manages to leave space for an Emersonian piano solo.
Elektronica Mambo Musette
A very tasty, but rather spooky introduction gives way to a bouncy sort of prog jazz jam. At about mid-song the cut shifts gear to a new progression that at times feels a bit like Jean-Luc Ponty. This eventually turns to some quite dissonant chaos as they continue to follow it through. It does turn a bit weird for my tastes for a time, but comes back out in fine fashion. Then moves into one of the noisiest, somewhat dissonant jams of the whole track to end.

Kermesse Atomique
This one has a dramatic, slower mode to it, but still manages to turn a bit playful at times. While this one is really rather odd, I like it a lot. It has a great texture. This gets extremely powerful towards the end and is one of my favorite pieces on show here.

Bonjour Chez Vous
Starting with a jumping sort of jam, this one also has a playful nature and combines many of the same elements as the rest of the album into another cool jam. It turns more sedate late in the track, but is still quite dramatic. At five minutes even it is the shortest cut on the disc. In fact, of that five minutes over a minute is devoted to introducing the members of the band - making it that much shorter.

Meandres
Weird almost noise oriented playing starts this one in somewhat tentative, but very tasty tones. The group add layers of sound over the top of this to carry forward. They put in some killer jamming here, creating waves of varying textures and cycles of sound. There are some more Pontyish moments on show, but they don't stay around long. Neither does the group remain in one place for long. At just over ten and a half minutes this one is the second longest composition on the disc. It is also one of the best with some exceptionally strong musical journeys worked into its varying themes. This one is another of my favorites on the disc. It covers a ton of territory, being one of the most dynamic excursions on the CD. There are segments that rock out a lot, then others that are extremely sedate. Some parts are well structured, while others are chaotic. The whole number is very tasty, though.
Falling Rain Dance
Starting with a drum solo that runs through for almost half of its nearly nine minutes, atmospheric tones join for a while, then the bass comes in to make its presence known. Violin begins to weave waves of sound over the top of this backdrop and the group continue on from there. Although I'm not usually a fan of drum solos, this song is really one of the highlights of the disc and the band create some of the most melodic and just plain pretty music of the whole performance here.

Toujours Plus A L'est
Feeling rather Celtic at first, this is another playful jam that is very tasty. It moves between a number of variants on its themes throughout the course. It gets extremely powerful and dramatic at points and really does make for a great conclusion to this show.

 
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