The umpteenth Univers Zero release on Cuneiform, 2010's Clivages is bookended by two of the disc's four Daniel Denis compositions, the opening "Les Kobolds" and the closing "Les Cercles d'Horus," pieces that should gladden the hearts of aficionados who have followed UZ along their well over 30-year history. "Les Kobolds" will push all the right buttons for those enamored of the band's sound, with chamber instrumentation and electric bass and keys driven by Denis' inventive percussion, all in service to melodies and countermelodies with a somewhat Renaissance or Baroque feel, but with harmonic and textural shifts in ominous directions, as expected. UZ listeners have definitely heard this type of thing before, and in its construction and performance it recalls any number of prime Denis pieces: "Dense," "Toujours Plus à l'Est," "Presage." Likewise, the closing "Les Cercles d'Horus," with its funeral dirge drums and underlying doom-laden keyboards and bass, tips its hat to the similarly dark "Bruit dans les Murs" from 1986's Heatwave -- speaking of which, Clivages signals the return of keyboardist/guitarist Andy Kirk to the UZ fold for the first time since Heatwave; Kirk is featured as guitarist on two pieces here, most notably his own "Warrior," a 12-plus-minute composition with relentless escalating tension wholly in keeping with Kirk's Heatwave title track or "Funeral Plain" opus (with Kirk's guitar akin to that of Heatwave's fiery axeman, Michel Delory).
And yet Clivages is so much more than a mere revisitation of past UZ glories and nightmares. For example, despite all the explosive energy of the '80s-era band (check out the Relaps live collection for evidence), one crucially lacking element back then was the signature sound of Michel Berckmans' bassoon, and he is all over Clivages, including a face-off with Kurt Budé's bass clarinet on "Warrior"'s buildup. With Berckmans' presence, "Warrior" becomes a sort of unholy meld between the Ceux du Dehors and Heatwave groups, and what could be better than that? Plus, Berckmans contributes three compositions, his first since UZ re-emerged with 1999's The Hard Quest: "Vacillements" is a neo-classical chamber piece for bassoon, clarinet, and violin (played by Martin Lauwers) that recalls Berckmans' work in Julverne; "Retour de Foire" is beautifully somber with a delicate touch; and the brief "Apesanteur" is a comparatively subtle groover, with Denis driving a cruising rhythm on hi-hat and crisp percussives, the reeds and violin in unison themes or spirited counterpoint and keyboardist Pierre Chevalier sprinkling jazzy embellishments over the top. But the biggest revelation has to be Budé. The reedman first appeared on 2006's Live, his soaring clarinet a highlight of that disc's version of "Toujours Plus à l'Est," but here he has been truly unleashed -- or perhaps in the case of this band released from the dungeon -- both as player and composer. His Clivages compositions include the disc's longest opus, the nearly 14-minute "Straight Edge," which places his multi-reed acumen (including some bass clarinet overblowing suitable for any avant-garde jazz band) in a driving, ever-evolving, and even occasionally maniacal piece of classical/jazz-rock that instantly rises to the level of a UZ classic. And so, thanks go to Daniel Denis, the drummer/composer for all these years whose work distinctively marks Clivages -- but this album proves that Univers Zero reach their highest pinnacle as a truly collaborative outfit.