Univers Zero

Rhythmix

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In their 2002 incarnation, Univers Zero were mainly a vehicle for composer/drummer/keyboardist Daniel Denis, who continued his trend of toning down the hellish stuff heard to scariest effect on Heresie over two decades previously. Heresie was Univers Zero at their darkest, featuring low demonic chanting, wheezing harmonium drones, and a track called "Jack the Ripper." On 2002's Rhythmix, the doom and gloom are more subtle, Denis preferring the drama of multi-layered percussion and orchestral textures with a foundation of deep, sometimes mechanistic beats. Rhythmix is punchier and more varied in its instrumental palette than 1999's The Hard Quest (much anticipated after a ten-year band hiatus), and comparatively "Dense" (to borrow a track title from Ceux du Dehors, still the band's pinnacle). The sympathetic production is by Didier DeRoos (Uzed, Heatwave), and the core band is now a quartet, in addition to Denis featuring original Univers Zero member Michel Berckmans on oboe, English horn, and bassoon as well as Eric Plantain on electric bass and Bart Quartier on marimba and glockenspiel. Former bandmember Dirk Descheemaeker appears on only one track (with uncharacteristically skronky and squawking bass clarinet) and various guest musicians on trumpet, cello, flute, and accordion are featured elsewhere.

Denis seems to prefer drums the size of water tanks and cymbals as big as flying saucers, so one might expect a percussive onslaught or two to rattle the windowpanes. Denis complies on "Rouages: Second Rotation," revisiting the "Rouages" theme from The Hard Quest, but here the medieval sounds of oboe, acoustic guitar, harpsichord, and church organ are overwhelmed by pummeling percussives and hissing synths, giving the impression that a cavalcade of knights and fair damsels is about to be crushed by a panzer division. Working in the album's favor is the comparative brevity of tracks (six minutes at the longest with a number of pieces in the three-minute range); compositions are therefore over before they become too repetitive and start wearing thin. Yet Denis' signature composing style, the moody and atmospheric interludes offering moments of respite amidst the driving full-ensemble pieces, and the consistent production across the 13 tracks provide the overall arc of a lengthy suite. There are touchstones to previous Univers Zero outings too; for example, the initial maddening minimalist rush of "The Fly-Toxmen's Land" gives way to a dramatic keyboard and trumpet flourish (featuring Belgian avant-prog trumpet mainstay Bart Maris) recalling "Bruit Dans les Murs" from Heatwave. Quartier's tuned percussion is noteworthy throughout Rhythmix, crisp and lively yet somehow not working against the ominous and unsettling undercurrents of Denis' music. Rhythmix might not conjure up the demons of Heresie-era Univers Zero, but the album is still far better suited for soundtracking a haunted house than a day at the beach, unless there's something lurking beneath the waves that you wouldn't want to mess around with.

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