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Present: “Ram ram va faire ‘pif paf’”

From the album Le poison qui rend fou (1985)

Beginning in 1969 with the founding of the groundbreaking “concept band” Magma, France and Belgium became the breeding ground for a distinctively continental take on the originally Ango-American phenomenon of progressive rock. Ditching operatic vocals in favor of a primarily instrumental mix and integrating contemporary influences from jazz and metal to contemporary classical, groups such as Univers Zero and Art Zoyd forged a unique sound that is to my ears among the most valuable contributions to the music of the late 20th century.

One of the second-generation manifestations of the Franco-Belgian “avant-prog” movement was Present, a group founded by guitarist Roger Trigaux, in 1979. After contributing to the first two albums of the pioneering chamber rock group Univers Zero, Trigaux broke off in order to pursue a more electrified, guitar-based sound. Present has released 10 albums over three decades of existence and remains active to this day. 

The opening track of the band’s sophomore release, Le poison qui rend fou, shows the group in prime form. While the rhythm section hammers out short, syncopated riffs whose sudden juxtaposition recalls the ostinato patterns of early Stravinsky, Trigaux’s guitar and Alain Rochette’s keyboard unfold a melodic polyphony at once jagged and elegant. The track also features a rare vocal element in the first few minutes, with singer Marie-Anne Pollaris belting out an angular atonal melody over a tripping funk groove. While the band’s hectic interplay at times approaches a state of collective noodling, at their best they display the exhilarating potential of rock-influenced music freed from the shackles of conventional song form.


Played 189 time(s).

October 29, 2012, 4:47pm

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Univers Zero: “Rouages”

From the album The Hard Quest (1999)

Since the 1970s, the Belgian band Univers Zero has been forging an idiosyncratic synthesis of pseudo-medievalism, dark metal, and 20th- century chamber music. (The band’s homepage bears the motto, “If Stravinsky had a rock band, it would sound like this.”) A vital part of the important and under-appreciated European progressive rock scene, Univers Zero has maintained an unmistakable sound over 35 years of activity and a constantly shifting roster of musicians. 

The band’s first albums, 1313 (originally released as Univers Zero in 1977) and Heresie (1979) were anchored by drummer Daniel Denis and guitarist Roger Trigaux. Their distinctive chamber-rock sound emerged with the addition of Michel Berckmans (oboe and bassoon) and keyboardist Emmanuel Nicaise. Univers Zero made a name for itself in the early 1970s by opening for French prog-juggernaut Magma. Later in the decade they toured with another pioneering group, Art Zoyd, and became active in the “Rock in Opposition" (RIO) movement, a cabal of mutually supportive progressive/experimental bands active from 1978.

Trigaux left the group at the end of the decade in order to start his own band, Present. Univers Zero’s three albums from the 1980s, Ceux de dehors (1981), Uzed (1984), and Heatwave (1987), marked a shift to a darker tone and a heavier reliance on electronic instruments. After Heatwave, Denis left Univers Zero to pursue a solo career and join up with Art Zoyd for a number of releases. With his departure, the band was effectively mothballed. After a 12-year hiatus, Denis and Berckmans brought Univers Zero back to life in 1999, releasing three new albums over the next five years. A live album, a set of archival recordings from the mid-1980s, and a new studio album have appeared since then.

Drawn from The Hard Quest, the album that launched the group’s third incarnation, the song “Rouages” (meaning cogs or wheels) evokes parallels with the jagged chamber works of Stravinsky or Bela Bartok, the gothic cadences of Dead Can Dance, and the imagined medieval music of Moondog.

Univers Zero

Played 691 time(s).

October 25, 2012, 9:19am

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