Univers Zero is led by drummer Daniel Denis; Present’s leader is guitarist Roger Trigaux, who was in Univers Zero for their first two albums. Each band reflects its leader’s instrument. Univers Zero’s music is abrupt and choppy, with riffs that sound like they’re based on drum rudiments. Present trolls similar dank, stony chambers, with the guitars of Roger Trigaux and his son Reginald providing additional menace. Both bands have monster drummers. In a genre where the standard was set by Christian Vander and Magma, it’s a must. Denis (who actually joined Magma briefly in the early ’70s) combines a free-flying Art Blakey and Keith Moon approach with a classical percussionist's discipline. Present’s Dave Kerman hits even harder—he’s a big fan of Gaza and other types of grind madness—yet he matches Denis’s orchestral approach in playing the entire kit at all times.
Univers Zero—Relaps: Archives 1984–1986 (Cuneiform)
Relaps collects Univers Zero live recordings from a difficult time in the band’s history, as documented in the liner notes. Although line-up changes and financial woes put the band’s existence in jeopardy, the eight tracks featured are bombastic and fierce—the sound of a band driven to survive by destroying all comers. For the sake of my nervous system, I hope I don’t hear anything more intense than the version of “The Funeral Plain” heard here. The extended ostinado solo section that sees Jean-Luc Plouvier and his demented DX7 work handing off to Michel Delory’s equally sadistic guitar solo is audio terrorism at its finest. It’s surprising to hear the audience applauding at the end, and realize that UZ hadn’t rendered the crowd into clumps of bubbling goo at Belgium’s Centre Culturel de Seraing that night. Some people evidently survived.
After this period and a final studio album (Heatwave), Denis retired the band until 1999's The Hard Quest.
Univers Zero: Evil Incarnate
Present—Barbaro (ma non troppo) (Ad Hoc)
Present took a similar path to UZ, releasing two albums in the early ‘80s before resurfacing with Certitudes in 1998. Their latest, Barbaro (ma non troppo), is a two disc set comprising three new studio recordings (44 minutes) and a DVD with nearly three hours of performances from 1994 to 2007. The new music is stunning. “Vertiges” is a 16-minute labyrinth of percussive insanity—pianist Pierre Chevalier hammers the piano like a man possessed—that builds to a couple climaxes. You might think they’ve given everything they had at the 9:30 mark, but wait, there's more to come. Chevalier’s “A Last Drop” has more of a sustained groove—albeit an off-kilter, juddering sort of groove—before it drops into a tension-building section that almost sounds pleasant and achievable by mere mortals. The final track is a little bit special in that it’s a remake of Trigaux and Denis’ “Jack the Ripper” from Univers Zero’s malevolent 1979 masterwork, Heresie. The older version was shrouded in the murk of a London fog; this new one gleams and flashes like a knife blade.
The DVD portion is just as alarming. The primary footage is well shot and edited, with the musicians’ craft as the main focus. Present in concert isn’t a heads-down noodle-fest, though. They do have a flair for the theatric. Witness the stern, gaunt figure of Roger Trigaux conducting the band through the first half of “Promenade au fond d’un Canal” like he’s casting spells. Cringe at the shirtless war-painted guy who takes centre stage to pound out time on a pipe. Thrill to Trigaux smashing his guitar at the end of “Promenade...” from a seated position, no less. Chuckle at the world’s unhappiest teenage girl sulking in the front row at the Gouveia Art Rock Festival in Portugal. Wonder at the sight of Kerman playing the drums with wooden spoons, chains, and Barbie dolls at various points. The highlight comes when the Barbie heads eventually come flying off and Kerman continues smashing the cymbals with the decapitated doll bodies. It’s official: Present are the most brutal band ever.