Review Summary: Univers Zero perfect their brand of Rock in Opposition [of everything pop] with this unique nightmare.
There something about the dark side of music that appeals to music enthusiasts. Like a good horror flick, the more we delve into the abyss the more we desire to be frightened by something more. Something more obscured by shadows. Something entirely unexpected. While many 70s progressive rock bands thrived on dark compositions like King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator, and Magma, none embraced it so fully as Univers Zero. They were part of the original RIO (Rock in Opposition) artists spurred by Henry Cow, which should give us an idea of how little they cared about conventional music. Though their debut broke just as much ground by introducing Univers Zero as an avant-prog, "chamber rock" band (complete with strings, woodwinds, organ, electric bass, and drums), it is their sophomore album Heresie that is the most oppressive and uncompromising of them all.
Heresie opens with its 25 minute manifesto "La Faulx," which is literally translated "scythe." Sure, "death" is the first thing that comes to mind when its weapon of choice is mentioned, but the emotion of song is that of unsettlement. Think not that death has murdered you. Think more that death has you in its clutch, scythe ready at your throat, yet the moment of your demise is still uncertain. Hope is but a small candlelight in a dark, moonless forest, but when will your agony end? When will you be brought to rest?
"La Faulx" starts with the low droning of strings and woodwinds. It ebbs with a slow dissonant chromatic pattern, and a whispering voice gradually becomes recognizable over the blanket of instruments. It is definitely a man, but his intentions are unclear as he is speaking a bizarre language (if it's French or German I apologize because I know little of either). He begins chanting in the manner of fellow French-speaking prog veterans Magma, and percussion comes in to accent a crawling, complex rhythm pattern. As the percussion settles in more tightly, more voices join the fray, wailing in chaos only to fade out as the instruments continue. Electric bass comes in with a thud as the drums settle into a thick doomish groove. As if possessed by some evil spirit, the man who was once chanting now growls "AHEY-AH" like a wild beast as you are pounded to the floor.
If you have not yanked your earbuds out at this point, congratulations! You have passed the darkest part of the darkest song on the album. But don’t pat yourself on the back yet. Heresie has only just begun. "La Faulx" continues with brooding melodies set to repulsive harmonies and brain-racking complex rhythms. It climaxes with the high screeching of violins reminiscent of Hitchcock's Psycho before closing with a low crash of final despair. If you were expecting prog rock like The Moodies Blues or Supertramp you had better think again. King Crimson sounds like Kansas when compared to Univers Zero. This is as impenetrable as it comes.
Though the next song refrains from growling and shrieking at the listener, it is no less uncompromising. "Jack the Ripper" especially shows off a great deal of technical skill through its weaving of classical chamber instruments and electric bass and rock drums. The part at about 12:35 when the instruments back off leaving the bass to rip through the 5/4 bassline sounds incredible. This is probably the most accessible song of the three, if that is a trait you haven’t already given up on entirely.
The last song "Vous le Saurez en Temps Voulu" is slightly less pounding than the first two, relying more on moody violin melodies and some more rapid with an almost gypsy flavor. It is still terribly complex and unpredictable. Still, coupled with being placed after the power of the first two, this song is easily the least impressive and accounts for Heresie's small flaw.
Whether you are truly frightened or just perplexed by the strange dissonance of this avant-garde chamber rock, Heresie is quite unlike anything before it and possibly since. Unless you are already accustomed to the most bizarre prog rock bands and/or 20th century classical composers, you will likely have a hard time knowing what to do with Heresie, and you may reject it for being too different…heretical, even. Those of us who know the philosophy behind the Rock in Opposition movement that Univers Zero subscribes to know this: Univers Zero accomplished everything they set out to do in Heresie.