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Belgian Chamber Prog Rock Scene

Written by HUGUES CHANTRAINE and proofread by Bob McBeath

Unlike all its neighbouring countries, Belgium never had a hugely successful prog group, (a lot of progheads will remember light-prog Machiavel and know of borderline prog dEUS). Belgium, however, has had a very vivid scene ever since the very early 70’s, but the least we can say is that it stayed very confidential and is linked partly with the French groups like Magma and Art Zoyd. Many progressive music fans into more adventurous, experimental music will know a few groups of which the best known is Univers Zero and its offshoot Present. But they were hardly the only ones, their genesis was a long time coming and they had many predecessors. You will find most of the bands I will discuss in the Avant/prog, Zeuhl, Fusion, Canterbury, and RIO, some would even classify as Les Musiques Nouvelles. This should give a solid hint why those groups are not widely known.

A quick overview of the more symphonic Belgian scene.

The first Belgian group to reach international success was Wallace Collection who were followed nationally by Waterloo, The Pebbles and Mad Curry, but this was over for all of them by 1970. A bit later on in the 70’s came Shampoo (ex-members of Pebbles and Mad Curry - 1 Lp), Banzai (one excellent record), Magenta (one Lp). None had success although Esperanto Rock Orchestra did cut three very strong albums (from 73 to 75) and did hit international fame. If the frontmen of E.R.O were British (and assimilated), the backbone of the band – the musicians - were for the most part Belgians (from Mons). This paved the way for Machiavel and their light and derivative prog rock from 76 onwards. They became one of the better known bands at the time and got thrown in the dubious category of Eurock (with Kayak and Eloy) but this was a journalistic invention. At their peak in 78 with Mechanical Moonbeams, Machiavel was headlining arenas throughout Europe and causing many other bands to try to duplicate their success. Groups such as Isopoda (2 Lps), Nessie (2 Lps), Phylter (1Lp), Flyte (1Lp), and Dragon (two good albums) have all blossomed, but none have managed any kind of success and folded before the turn of the decade. This left Machiavel alone but the drift towards more commercial music was on for them too! By the end of the 80’s, only Now was developing symphonic rock. A new generation has been on the way up since the turn of the century but all these bands have yet to make an impact.

Also worthy of note is the Hard rock group Irish Coffee that recorded a few singles and one good album with the incredibly infectious “The Show” and “Masterpiece”. Jenghiz Khan is also very sought after amongst collectors with a rough-edged hard-prog.

-The early 70’s Jazzy connection:

One of the most important groups retrospectively is Arkham, even if they never released anything (a compilation does exist at Cuneiform records). This is Daniel Denis’s first group as well as Manderlier and Cogneaux. Both Denis and Manderlier will join Magma soon after disbanding.

Some of you will know of Lagger Blues Machine who is now legendary amongst collectors for having done a sombre and impressive album, later labelled Zeuhl, but it is also very Canter-Zappa-Crimson-esque.

Also of mega interest is Placebo with its leader keyboardist Marc Moulin (later in Cos and Telex but also a lengthy solo career) that released three excellent brassy jazz-rock fusion albums somewhere between Nucleus and Miles Davis of the era. None of these albums were ever reissued on Cd, but an excellent compilation does exist.

This jazzy heritage will be carried over with Cos (starting in 74 from their first name Classroom) will record a string of albums until 1983’s Pasiones (a concept of the Spanish Civil war), their sound gradually evolving from almost pure Canterbury prog of their first two albums – Pascale Son uses her voices like a real instrument in those two albums – to the very funky/new wave/Belew-era-Crimson. Marc Moulin will be active with Cos but this is really Daniel Schell’s project. Viva Boma and the Great Postaelian Train Robbery are a must-hear for any proghead.

Pazop (the lone but excellent Psychillys Of A Lunatic Genius in 72) with Cogneaux as a leader and developing a truly intelligent and original (and funny) sound also best described as Canterbury prog. The second album was never to be, but some tracks are included on the Cd release of their debut and they are of the same calibre.

Recreation (2 albums: 71’s Recreation and 72’s Music Or Not Music) of KB-led instrumental prog trio somewhere between Canterbury and symphonic prog with JP Falaise as a superb leader, Tideline (2 albums in the late 70’s) and Kandahar (3 albums in the Supersister-style Canterbury), but only Cos will manage a lengthier career into the 80’s. A lot of the albums from these groups have yet to see a Cd release

-The origins of chamber prog:

But we are forgetting Arkham who broke up after Denis and Manderlier left to join Magma, although one suspects that Denis did not stay because a double drumming team with Christian Vander would’ve been insane to hold on to. Daniel then returned to Belgium to found Univers Zero (they had first named themselves Necronomicon but aware of a German band with the same name, they changed name) as soon as ‘74 although they had to wait until ‘77 to release an astounding debut album 1313 that was to revolutionize experimental rock. One must note that Univers Zero is one of the six founding members (from different countries) of RIO (Rock In Opposition) with UK’s Henry Cow, Sweden’s Zamla Manna Mamma, France’s Etronfou Leloublan and after Art Zoyd, Germany’s Dzyann, Italy’s Stormy six . Univers Zero has nothing to do with anything previously done in rock before either in Belgium or elsewhere. Their music was a bizarre and very sombre mix of early 20th century classical (Bartok, Stravinsky) with Magma influences and uncommon rock instrumentation (Bassoon and violas) over a red-hot rhythm section reminiscent of Henry Cow. Daniel Denis is justifiably recognized as one of the best experimental drummers and his powerful strike is incredibly inventive. Univers Zero is one of the earliest and most typical examples of Chamber Rock (referring to classical chamber music) and the first group in a long Belgian tradition. They were later joined by Aksak Maboul, where two Henry Cow played soon after their debut then proceeding on with Honeymoon Killers. So much RIO, that it is not exaggerating to say this is the country’s specialty and main contribution to prog rock or progressive music. Univers Zero will record a string of three stunning albums before changing and electrifying their sound.

But by that time Present, their offshoot project lead by U Z guitarist Roger Trigaux (but with Denis on drums) had released a macabre debut album “Triskaidekaphobie” (fear of number 13 – probably a wink to U Z’s debut album 1313) that still puts to shame most gothic music 25 years later. U Z will then move on to a more structured and electrified rock music but still with major Bartok influences; two of their most essential albums are 82’s “Ceux Du Dehors” for the first period and 85’s “Uzed” for the second era. To this day both groups (U Z and Present) still exist although they were both put to rest at the end of the 80’s and early 90’s, before soaring to new heights from the mid 90’s!

A third band also rose in the late 70’s, and calling themselves after French Sci-fi grandfather Jules Verne: Julverne. Their music is completely acoustic, mostly classical and does not really hold any rock elements but they became a central figure of the scene, so much so that if you were to draw a rock family tree, they have a direct link with almost every branch of the tree. When listening to their bizarre music, most progheads will gladly include them in their sphere of interest. Chamber rock, classical chamber music, Musiques Nouvelles, fusion and RIO, they got it all!

Aksak Maboul was yet another stunning ensemble, more inspired by Henry Cow (Chris Cutler and Fred Frith will play on the second album), before the group metamorphosed in two parts: Les Tueurs De La Nuit De Miel and The Honeymoon Killers. A.M. was the project of multi instrumentalist Marc Hollander, but these records are really for confirmed RIO fans only.

-The rebirth and the actual scene.

The rest of the 80’s were fairly lean times for Chamber prog, you might want to make an exception for Maximalist who recorded one album, and ex-Cos Daniel Schell and Karo, as well as other prog currents until the early 90’s Aka Moon (harcore jazz-rock if you can believe it ;-) played in the underground and selective Kaaï club, that things started moving again. By the mid-90’s when two bizarre groups appeared on the scene: Cro-Magnon, X-legged Sally, soon followed by Hardscore, but the real news for progheads was mainly the return of firstly Present and then Univers Zero.

Present was the first one to rise from its ashes with a strange Trigaux father/son duo project, before recording a Live album (based on their early records) with US citizen Dave Karman on drums. They have since have produced three excellent if unsettling avant-prog albums sometimes veering into Les Musiques Nouvelles. Of their second career you could try High Infidelity

Daniel Denis who had been working with French group Art Zoyd and had recorded two solo albums in the early 90’s (both highly reminiscent of U Z) before finally zeroing back into his previous universe with his old buddy Michel Berckmans (he had played and recorded over the whole planet with his bassoon) and reforming Univers Zero. The first two albums (99 and 01 respectively brought nothing new to the music that existed before, but since 2003 and the release of Implosion (where the tracks are separated by small sampled electronics themes) which turned out to be their most essential album since Uzed. Since this album, Univers Zero has been a concert group again and a live album is foreseen early in 2006 soon followed by a DVD.

Cro-Magnon is a mostly Flemish band that has recorded three vastly different albums ranging from acoustic chamber prog and classical somewhere between UZ and Julverne (Zap!) to a very energetic and fully electrified avant-prog like Miriodor (Bull) and to a rather ethnic fusion jazz rock (Brosella)..

Hardscore is the only clear-cut Flemish band - most of the chamber-prog groups discussed in this article were either Wallon (French-speaking) or from Brussels (more bilingual French/Dutch). Their albums are also an acquired taste but definitely oriented towards Frank Zappa, they have produced a highly worthy discography so far. Their most recommended album to date is Surf, Wind And Desire

Finnegans Wake is the project of Henry Crutzen (who is a veteran from the late 70’s) and they developed at first a Canterbury-related sound before progressively sliding towards more fusion-based classical music. Their latest album 4th is a double album which is awesome in spectrum and mastery.

Daniel Schell (ex-Cos) has made three albums (86, 90 & 94) with his group Daniel Schell & Karo, which hovers in between Julverne, jazz, world music, using a Chapman Stick and the Halvenhalf string quartet.

In 1992, the French-speaking government sponsored a big band called La Grande Formation, which produced two distinct groups later that year:

-X-legged Sally (X-L S) is the group of Vervloesem and Vermeersch (ex-Maximalist) who recorded seven albums (and another two as collaborations) which could send a lot of prog musicians back to their cribs. Their best albums are The Land Of The Giant Dwarfs and Killed By Charity. Disbanded by 98, (they went on to form the poppier A Group and later the big band (up to 16) The Flat Earth Society), X-L S had recently stopped activities, but was an incredibly complex mix of all kinds of music currents from free jazz to contemporary classical music and some trash ambiances. Their spirit lives on in the solo album of Pierre Vervloesem whose album Grosso Modo is a real stunner.

A bit aside and mostly accented towards jazz is Aka Moon – a sax-led trio with three outstanding masters (heavily into Coltrane at first), all of whom give lessons at the royal academy. They brought together the high-culture and the rock crowd and recorded with widest possible spectrum of artists. You might want to start with their debut Aka Moon album for their love of the great Coltrane and the Ganesh album to see their interest in world music.

Other groups that did not manage to hold for more than one album are Fukkeduk (Ornitozosy in 93) and Louise Avenue (Let’s Take One More from 93). Also of interest is Halvenhalf (Paysage De Carton from 93) and with members of Julverne and the fact that this last group reformed for one album in 99 proves that the Belgian scene is back in full stride.

Conclusion:

This about wraps up the Belgian “serious” prog scene, but most of these groups (U Z and Present excepted) are anything but serious in their music cultivating irony, good-natured fun and you can find many surrealist moments. The best description for the genre they are developing as a whole would be Avant Prog, but their tendency on leaning on acoustic and classical instrumentation makes most of them fall in the Chamber Rock category or as I choose to call it Chamber Prog. There was a relatively similar phenomenon in the late 70’s in Quebec with groups such as Maneige, L’Orchestre Sympathique, Aquarelle, Sloche etc. and it also stayed all too confidential and musically much wiser. Nevertheless experienced progheads that have the impression of stagnating because they have discovered every symphonic prog group around, if they enjoy more challenging music and modern classical music, you might just have hit the jackpot with any of those groups mentioned in this essay.

NB: Those groups I have mentioned that are not yet included in our beloved Archives , will be soon or later.

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