Univers Zero was a member of the late 1970s movement ‘Rock in Opposition’, a European collective (instigated by Henry Cow and Chris Cutler of the same) of bands committed to musical excellence and operating, by self-perpetuating accident, outside the mainstream record industry. Ten years before, major labels, as a legacy of the classical record tradition of making art available, had seemed more willing to take a chance on various ‘art’ projects; profits from one venture perhaps offsetting small losses from another. By 1980 and the post-punk era, the major record companies had got the idea that they should be the ones shaping public tastes, with a tighter grip on the profits.
Of course, ‘musical excellence’ is a debatable concept! That Univers Zero exhibits a high standard of musicianship is clear; highly orchestrated, tight and focused ensemble playing. Its roots are in the ‘70s and the feeling that rock should rise from its ‘low’ origins to the status of a serious art form, surpass the efforts of ‘concept album’ pomp and leave behind the purely American influences that had largely dominated rock music to the early ‘70s. The market fuelled perhaps by the teenagers of the 1960s growing to adulthood, solvency, an appetite for progress, and mass availability of ‘real hi-fi’. I suppose one’s taste for this disc or the band in general will be coloured by the reader’s view of the above observations.
This European centred movement for the advancement of rock integrated classical, folk and jazz forms; this kind of deliberate cross fertilisation – as opposed to merely adopting phrases or the style of other genres – was much more open at the time.
Of course, this is not the 1970s, and this is not a reissue from any golden era of nostalgia. The band, despite a break between 1986 and ’99, is still playing, touring and recording. This recording dates is from 2006. It is a fine recording in the European progressive tradition largely overlooked in Britain. If your record shelves or hard drives contain the likes of Magma, Zappa, Colin Towns, Henry Cow etc this album will sit nicely amidst them without sounding like more of the same.
The recording quality is excellent too, great for impressing your mates with your latest hi-fi upgrade.