Sonic Curiosity Logo

Prog Rock on Cuneiform: Raoul Björkenheim, Hamster Theatre, Nebelnest, Picchio dal Pozzo, Univers Zero

decorative rule

This time we take a look at a number of superb prog rock releases on the Cuneiform Records label.

decorative rule

RAOUL BJÖRKENHEIM: Apocalypso (CD on Cuneiform Records)

Finnish guitarist Björkenheim was commissioned to compose an ambitious piece of music for the 1995 Helsinki Juhlaviikot Festival, featuring the mammoth power of a total of 42 musicians: 30 guitarists, 8 bassists, and 4 percussionists. In 2000, Björkenheim added material to the composition, recording his own version of "Apocalypso" and performing all the parts himself as an impressive tour-de-force of virtual ensemble. This 41 minute CD contains that breathtaking rendition of this complex and challenging piece of music.

Tortured guitar strains accompany a staccato percussive track that wobbles like a drunken cathedral as the piece begins. Gutsier and more coherent guitar emerges to throttle a melody from the cacophony, forcing the music into more traditional territory. Bass strings are stretched to endurance while shakers provide an eerie presence between the languid bass drum beats. Crescendos are achieved swiftly, devolving into surging passages of crunching rock music. There are moments of sedate temperament consisting of tenderly plucked guitar and ambiguous electronic surfs, but these respites are brief, as the abstract mood falls away and the melody slips into an ascent of slide guitar and processional percussion. Cellos lull the listener for an explosive eruption of impossibly deep-throated guitars punctuated by fanciful heavenly application of those same six strings.

The 9 minute title track near the end of this CD combines much of the previously encountered abstract riffs into a blazing fusion that displays rhythms in opposition amid a searing guitar virtuosity that instills an ecstatic thrill with its shrill and powerful reverberations.

Overall, this music carries the sensibilities of a Glenn Branca modern symphony for guitar to versatile heights with inventive structure and passionate delivery.

decorative rule

HAMSTER THEATRE: Carnival Detournement (CD on Cuneiform Records)

This CD from 2001 delivers 50 minutes of progressive theater of the absurd, the brainchild of Dave Willey and Jon Stubbs (with the help of several guests, including Mark Harris and Mike Johnson from Thinking Plague).

Often intense, this music draws from a wide variety of sources and influences, fusing Rock in Opposition with reggae, carnival themes with folk music, cacophony with deconstructed avant garde.

The instrumentation is pretty diverse here, featuring accordions and harmonium dueling with guitars and eclectic percussives, and a variety of horns and reeds counterparted by propane hoses and nylon string guitars. No vocals though, leaving the strangeness to non-verbal expression.

Dense and somewhat melancholy, the music is quite unpredictable, a factor that plays in favor of the listener' constant entertainment.

decorative rule

NEBELNEST: Nova Express (CD on Cuneiform Records)

This 47 minute CD from 2002 is the second release from this French band. Nebelnest is: Michael Anselmi, Cyril Malderez, Gregory Teledor, and Oliver Teledor. This album features the production of Bob Drake.

A burst of searing guitar spills over the audience, tracing fiery riffs in the air as passionate drumming electrifies everything with insistently dynamic rhythms. Lurking in the mix, the bass rumbles like some subterranean beast striving to free itself. The keyboards sweep through this blazing sonic mass, lending fanciful diversion to the smoldering aggression oozing from the music. Electronics feature in this, too, establishing an eerie element amid the band's powerhouse performance. There are no lyrics.

There is a constant battle going on in this music, a struggle between dissonance and cohesion that is finely crafted to keep the melodies unpredictable and rewarding. The tunes are frantic with intensity and crowded with exhausting riffs. The tastiness of this music is quite unbelievable.

Nebelnest's compositional sensibilities are stunning, torturing the maximum degree of fervor from every note that is compressed into each second. It is quite thrilling to hear such a fusion of King Crimson and Univers Zero.

decorative rule

PICCHIO DAL POZZO: Camere Zimmer Rooms (CD on Cuneiform Records)

There are very few instances of the Canterbury sound reaching into Italian progrock to influence a band's style. Picchio dal Pozzo (whose name roughly translates as "the Woodpecker of the Well") is such an instance. Concerned with social and political issues in Italy, this band released two albums during the Seventies, toured extensively and performed regular concerts for the patients in Genoa's main psychiatric hospital.

"Camere Zimmer Rooms" is a live-in-studio recording, performed for an audience of friends in 1977. This 44 minute CD was released in 2001 by Cuneiform Records for the first time.

Possessing lyrics in Italian, this music is a lush expression of tasty progrock with sinuous saxophones and flute winding passionately through percussion that delivers a strong Soft Machine sound. Keyboards belt out National Health riffs, while the bass growls softly like a nimble-fingered beast. The guitar is delicate and refined, rarely screaming and satisfied to remain an almost subliminal element in the liquid mix. There is a presence of pre-recorded tapes (factory noises, collaged radio commercials, and environmental sounds) enhancing the band's shimmering output, giving their passion an urban context.

decorative rule

UNIVERS ZERO: Crawling Wind (CD on Cuneiform Records)

Long acknowledged as one of the founding bands in the Rock in Opposition movement, Univers Zero attained renown during the Seventies and Eighties for their uncompromising dedication to haunting, edgy music that fused modern structure with Old World airs.

The "Crawling Wind" EP has long been a rarity among the band's discography, for it was released in 1983 as a limited edition twelve-inch in Japan. Cuneiform Records has made this sonic gem available now, remastered with the inclusion of previously unreleased studio and live material (from 1979, '82, and '84), bringing the CD to a grand total of 42 minutes.

While the core of Univers Zero's unique sound is derived from guitar, bass, drums and keyboards, the ever-prevalent presence of violin, harmonium, clarinet, cello, oboe and bassoon plunge this music into a vibrating pastiche of gothic proportion unparalleled by any other band.

Sinuous violin strains pulse with energetic wails amid a horde of powerful percussives. Nimble keyboards deliver an earthiness in contrast to the eerie call of the rest of the instruments. The guitar growls from subterranean depths, driving through the rumbling basslines to explode from the soil and cavort in the sky over the wintry landscape generated by the melodies. While the songs are rich with a haunted mood, these dark tones are accented with a striving humanity that refuses to be forced into the background. Passion and yearning accompany each harmony, lending the seething power an accessibility devoid from most avant garde music.

The liner notes included with this release detail a brief history of the band, affording the audience a perspective on their relationship with Magma and the musical world at large.

decorative rule

UNIVERS ZERO: Rhythmix (CD on Cuneiform Records)

For this 53 minute recording from 2001 (released in 2002), Univers Zero is: Daniel Denis (on drums, percussion, keyboards, and harmonium), Michel Berckmans (on oboe, English horn, bassoon, and voice), Eric Plantain (on electric bass), and Bart Quartier (on marimba and glockenspiel), with appearances by Aurelia Boven (on cello), Ariane De Bievre (on flute and piccolo), Dirk Descheemaeker (on bass clarinet), Bart Mavis (on trumpet), Christophe Pons (on acoustic guitar), and Louison Renault (on accordion).

As evidenced by the above-listed instruments, Univers Zero employs a equal blend of acoustic sounds with a gritty and severe electronic edge. The horns reverberate with dire consequences. The drums resound with landscape-moving rhythms. The keyboards exude a haunting air that trembles like a mist off the moors, heavy with eerie implications, yet alluring like the call of a dark siren. Tension runs high in this music, always whispering of impending thrills.

Imagine a fusion of chamber music and instrumental modern rock, then take that sound and imbue it with a fury and fervor that grips the heart and soul of the audience with tender claws forged in shadowy zones of sonic drama.

Progrock has a dark side, and Univers Zero occupy the pinnacle of this vivacious realm.

decorative rule
Entire page © 2002 Matt Howarth.
All rights reserved.
Webpage design by Stasy