Building on the artistic success of their last CD, Rhythmix, Univers Zero returns almost entirely to their acoustic roots (no howling electric guitars here), and with a refined and tempered equivalent of the relentless, prolonged gloom of early releases such as 1313 and Heresie. Pieces are shorter and more varied, with some taking the form of almost jaunty medieval dances. The only electric instruments are Eric Plantain's electric bass, plus some discrete sampling and synth keyboards from drummer and leader Daniel Denis, who currently writes all the group's music. Michel Berckmans (oboe, English horn, bassoon) and Denis are the only remaining original members, although clarinetist Dirk Descheemaeker played on several of the later Univers Zero recordings in the mid-'80s. But even with a number of new bandmembers, the group's chamber music instrumentation (saxophones, cello, trumpet, marimba and violin), together with Denis' intricate writing and the very tight ensemble work, is enough to deliver the signature Univers Zero sound. Overt but short gothic/industrial elements, with titles such as "Suintement (Oozing)," "Miroirs (Mirrors)," "Ectoplasme," "Bacteria" and "A Rebours (In Reverse)," serve as bridges between songs and maintain the haunting, sinister edge that initially established the group's reputation. These five pieces, all roughly one-minute-long, display Denis' skillful use of sampler technology; the muted clanging, scraping, dripping, rumbling and squealing seems to emerge from obscure mechanical devices of unknown construction and purpose. A longer piece, "Partch's X-Ray" is an obvious homage to American maverick composer and instrument-maker Harry Partch It uses metallic-sounding tuned percussion, insectoid twittering from the strings and a rhythmic crow-like cawing to create a deliciously malevolent atmosphere. Likewise the shorter "La Mort de Sophocle (Sophocle's Death)," which employs mournful legato strings and percussive crashes to promote a feeling of oppressive gravity. The long closing piece, "Meandres (Meanderings)," also has some of the stabbing dissonance of early Univers Zero as it moves restlessly from one theme to another, although a middle section shows uncharacteristic restraint. The aura is hardly new age, but it is thoughtful. Other pieces such as "Falling Rain Dance," "Rapt D'Abdallah," "Mellotronic," "Out of Space 4" and the two untitled "Short Dance" tracks demonstrate Univers Zero's strong connection to medieval court music (and anyone who has listened to authentic re-creations of this music knows that it can be both melancholy and powerfully rhythmic). Another piece, "Temps Neuf," by virtue of its deep rhythmic groove and bursts of dissonant trumpet, could almost be regarded as a kind of gothic jazz-funk. Univers Zero's excellence lies in its continuing ability to synthesize medieval forms, instrumental prog rock and modern classical dissonance with a splash of jazz and a taste for the suggestively macabre. The group continues to produce creative, highly inventive music, and plays it with precision and panache. Highly recommended for the adventurous listener.
AllMusic Review by William Tilland