1. La Faulx (25:03)
2. Jack the Ripper (13:20)
3. Vous Le Saurez En Temps Voulu (12:51)
4. Chaos Hermetique (bonus track) (11:52)
Michel Berckmans – oboe, bassoon (1-3)
Daniel Denis – drums, percussion
Patrick Hanappier – violin, viola
Vincent Motouille – keyboards (4)
Guy Segers – bass, voice
Roger Trigaux – guitar, piano, organ, harmonium
Released when the original prog movement had, for the most part, already run out of steam, over the years Heresie has built a reputation as one of the gloomiest, most disturbing records ever produced in a progressive rock context. A descent into unadulterated darkness, Univers Zéro’s second album enjoys near-legendary status in the more forward-thinking circles of prog fans. As technically brilliant as any of the ‘big name’ bands of the early Seventies (and possibly even more so), the Belgian outfit approach the creation of highly challenging music from a distinctly different angle than the likes of Genesis or Yes – while a comparison with King Crimson might feel more appropriate.
Almost 32 years after Heresie’s release, Univers Zéro are the only founding band of the Rock in Opposition movement to be still active. With their latest release, Clivages, hailed as one of the last year’s landmark albums, their performance at the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits Festival in Washington DC (thanks to the joint efforts of the festival organizers and the band’s label, Cuneiform Records) was nothing short of breathtaking. They are also, however, a very divisive band to the more conservative set of prog fans, who often look upon the whole RIO/Avant scene as little more than a bunch of purveyors of jarring, overly demanding fare with pseudo-intellectual pretensions. While most of the classic prog of the ‘70s is symphonic in inspiration, with Univers Zéro we enter ‘chamber rock’ territory – which, just like its classical counterpart, can be the object of equally intense love or loathing.
Originally running at a whopping 50 minutes (very unusually for a single vinyl album), and almost completely acoustic, Heresie undoubtedly shares more with academic music than conventional rock, with typical rock instruments like the guitar taking a back seat. While Daniel Denis’ astounding drumming forms the core of the band’s sound, his style distinctly clashes with the common image of the powerhouse rock drummer. Having been so lucky as to see him and Magma’s Christian Vander on stage in the space of a week, I was struck by how both of them come across as almost antithetic to the brash, flamboyant style of drummers such as Mike Portnoy. Indeed, both Denis’ and Vander’s approach to drumming brings to mind the role of percussion in an orchestra – not merely propulsive, but textural and expressive at the same time. .
Though frequently described as the ideal soundtrack to a horror movie (or even to one of HP Lovecraft’s insomnia-inducing short stories), Heresie does not have a lot in common with the hard-hitting, yet slightly garish music produced by the likes of Goblin and Keith Emerson for Dario Argento’s iconic slasher flicks. As pointed out in the very thorough liner notes (courtesy of Renato Moraes and Aymeric Leroy, Canterbury expert extraordinaire and founder of the Calyx website), the album’s centrepiece, the monumental, 25-minute “La Faulx” (The Scythe) parallels the structure of Ingmar Bergman’s legendary The Seventh Seal – also suggested by the bleak, sepia-tinted cover artwork. Though “La Faulx” might at first appear as Univers Zéro’s idiosyncratic take on that old prog warhorse, the ‘epic’, I see it as perfectly contained chamber piece rather than a mini-symphony like “Close to the Edge”or “Supper’s Ready”. Opening with about seven minutes of nightmarishly chaotic sounds, echoing drum beats and menacing vocal growls in an invented language that would give any death metal band a run for their money, it develops into an intense, mesmerizing theme propelled along by Denis’ subtle yet relentless drumming and Michel Berckmans’ rich tapestry of woodwinds, interspersed by the plaintive voice of the violin. When, towards the end, the controlled chaos subsides, a hint of melody surfaces, as well as a measure of calm that seem to reflect the ending of Bergman’s masterpiece.
While apparently more cohesive and linear in compositional structure, “Jack the Ripper” suggests the devastation wrought by the titular character by means of harsh violin slashes, while the bassoon and drums at the beginning evoke the slow, plodding pace of a funeral march. The whole structure of the track is indeed ruled by the drums, whose expressive potential unfolds fully, lending them a ‘voice’ that transcends mere rhythmic beat. On the other hand, “Vous Le Saurez En Temps Voulu” (We’ll Let You Know in Due Time) is the most classically-inspired of the three original compositions, with a tuneful, almost upbeat first half reminiscent of Stravinsky, gradually driving towards a disturbing, doom-laden culmination – the ‘due time’ of the title probably referring to the moment of death.
The thorough remixing process undergone by Heresie lifts the music from the murky depths of the original version – perhaps effective in terms of atmosphere, but much less so in terms of musical enjoyment. However, besides the definite improvement of the sound quality, the main attraction of the album lies in the previously unreleased track “Chaos Hermetique”, remastered from an audio cassette copy and originally recorded in 1975, prior to Berckmans’ arrival. With a definitely more electric direction, it revolves around composer Roger Trigaux’s guitar, conjuring shades of the sleek angularity of King Crimson; while Denis assumes a more conventional rock drummer role, providing plenty of bottom end in unison with Guy Segers’ bass.
Splendidly composed and flawlessly executed, Heresie can nonetheless prove nearly unapproachable for those who believe melody and memorable tunes are essential components of music. While not as harsh or atonal as other efforts by RIO/Avant bands, and much more disciplined and tightly knit than one might expect, this is an album that needs to be listened to with care and attention, preferably when the time and mood are right – and not just because it is ‘scary’ music that might not make you sleep at night. Based on painstaking detail (like most chamber music) rather than broad sweeps, it also possesses the austere beauty of medieval architecture, stark though not exactly minimalistic, yet full of majesty and power. In any case, I would recommend Heresie to anyone interested in authentically progressive, challenging music, though not necessarily ‘prog’ in the canonical sense of the word. A liking for early 20th-century academic music would also help when approaching Univers Zéro’s output as a whole.