Frank Zappa
Hot Rats

(Zappa Records)

Though some of you might not agree (which for me is not a problem at all: as the old saying goes, "everybody is entitled to my own opinion"), for this writer there are no doubts about the identity of the most important musical event of the year: of course, it's the mammoth re-release program of the whole (well, almost, but not quite) Frank Zappa catalogue, something which follows the agreement between the Zappa Family and big major Universal (there's also a "digital" chapter, the catalogue being available on iTunes).

It's fifty-six titles we're talking about, with twenty-one of them (twenty-two, really) getting a new re-master from the original analogue tapes. The albums will be released in groups (of approx twelve titles per group), at very close intervals - the first dozen titles having already appeared in July, with the next batch to be released in just a few days, at the end of August, and so on and so forth, till November.

And so, while most publicists and magazines were sleeping, tired from the summer heat, discussions and threads were flourishing all over the Web, about those titles already on sale and those about to be released, with various comments and hypotheses anticipating what one could listen to in a short while.

Adopting an unbiased approach, all the fuss has very sound reasons in its favour: due to a lengthy dispute concerning legal rights, the relationship between the Zappa Family and Rykodisc (the label that had previously detained the legal rights to the Zappa catalogue on CD) and all things pertaining to lawyers and courts (all stuff I know absolutely nothing about), the majority of Zappa-related items had disappeared from the market.

Of course, the actual "commercial potential" of said catalogue being re-released is yet to be assessed, Zappa's name being nowadays for most (music- and non-music-related) media something that has long been lost in the mists of a Jurassic-flavoured past. What's more, modern consumption frameworks make it high unlikely for the majority of consumers to react to stimuli other than Hype and Myth, so leaving people like Zappa (and all those who are similar to him, of course) in the uncomfortable position of somebody who has "only" music to offer, music being exactly the main reason we are talking about him now, but maybe not enough anymore (and yeah, I know it sounds so sad, but ain't that the truth?).

Why did I decide to review Hot Rats?, I hear you say. Well, this is really very simple and straightforward: This is the first time the original mix of this album gets to be released on CD. In other words, it's high unlikely that most readers have listened to this album before. So, in a way, we're talking about "an unknown masterpiece".

I still remember my puzzlement upon listening to the first version of this album on CD, a quite horrible re-mix (we only had Zappa himself to blame for this, for a host of reasons that I can't really discuss here, for reasons of space), my disconcertment only made more acute by the circumstance of my having chosen Hot Rats - an album I knew from memory - as my "practical guide" to buy my first CD player.

(Truth to be told, it appears that the original mix featured here previously appeared about three years ago in a 200gr. vinyl limited version on Classic Records. But having only seen, not listened to, a single sealed copy of said album, I cannot obviously comment on any differences and similarities.)

Those who, wanting to know more about Hot Rats, happen to leaf through old magazines are in for a few surprises. In fact, in times past, some called this album "Zappa's first commercial faux pas", while others called it "his best album ever" - and the were also those who called it "his only good album". Of course, times being different now, modern assessment is a lot less temperamental. It's a complex matter, but something can be said.

A genius musician who possessed a complex and colourful personality, starting from album number one (Freak Out!) by the group with that strange name (The Mothers Of Invention) of which he was the main raison d'Ítre, Frank Zappa found himself impersonating the role of Champion of the Counterculture. What's more, sitting among those musical and technical innovations of his work - which were not exclusive to him, sure, but which in my opinion he explored to a degree and depth that had no real peers - was an anti-establishment spirit that even in the context of those times had really no peers. Also, a great progression can be detected in those studio albums - from Freak Out, 1966, to Uncle Meat, 1969 - which sported a growing assurance in his use of technical means, and an experimental attitude when it came to the group's stage work, which made their concerts on both sides of the ocean deservedly legendary.

What kind of album is Hot Rats? First and foremost, it's an instrumental album (well, not quite, but the brief - and memorable - vocal performance by Captain Beefheart on Willie The Pimp doesn't change the fact that this is an instrumental album). Here I have to remind readers that it had been the vocals - their timbre, meaning, and function - that for many listeners had been the main stumbling block towards a full appreciation of the music of the group. While for many it had been "the message" and "the social dimension" of the music that had concealed the true quality of Zappa's musical output. Then, of course, there are those who argue that Zappa's post-Uncle Meat output is "a lot simpler, less profound and innovative" than what came before (but let's not forget that albums such as Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Burnt Weeny Sandwich, though released after Hot Rats, feature material recorded before that album's release date), but this is a different kettle of fish.

Having placed my (infallible) "objectivity hat" on my head I'll define Hot Rats - compared to what came before - as "a step sideways", surely not that "step backwards" some say it is (and let's not forget that - pace Lumpy Gravy - the whole orchestral chapter was still to come, 200 Motels just behind the corner). But it's a step sideways that's full of innovations, as we'll see in just a moment.

Hot Rats is the first album where one can talk about "Frank Zappa, guitar player". Which doesn't mean, of course, that those previous albums lacked good guitar performances (the contrary, in fact, being true). But - and here it's possible to draw a parallel with another "discreet" guitar player, Robert Fripp, who became known to "the general audience" as "a real guitar player" only by the time of Larks' Tongues In Aspic, the fifth studio album by King Crimson - it's thanks to Hot Rats that Zappa started getting mentioned outside the circle of his most attentive fans. It's not yet the molten lava one sees coming out of one's speakers when listening to an album that followed in a short while, Chunga's Revenge (an album, by the way, which features Twenty Small Cigars, a beautiful track off the Hot Rats sessions), which sports solos such as the ones featured on Transylvania Boogie and Chunga's Revenge. But it's a technically solid, compositionally inventive, Zappa one listens to sitting on guitar on Hot Rats.

Hot Rats was recorded on sixteen tracks (Uncle Meat's dense orchestrations were recorded on twelve tracks), hence a timbral clarity and a placement of sounds in the stereo field that are very lively and expressive - and with almost no peers at the time. One can't help but notice those rich, clear orchestrations; and the amazing imaging of the drums and percussion. Lotsa "mysterious" sounds, too, thanks to the masterful use of tape speed, and a skillful studio work that tells us this is a "rock" album.

Quite unusual for a "rock" album of that era, there are three different drummers.

The only member of the old Mothers Of Invention featured here, Ian Underwood is really in a class by himself. It's not an exaggeration to say that - while those intricate arrangements fully show the Zappa signature - this album would have sounded very differently without Underwood, whose performances on a great variety of instruments are always stylistically appropriate.

Opening track Peaches En Regalia is probably the only instrumental composition written by Frank Zappa that a lot of people have listened to, at least once. A smooth intro, a fine theme, a breezy Zappa solo, and appropriate performances by Ron Selico on drums and Shuggy Otis on bass, highlighting the "Latin" mood of the piece. Very fine percussion, also speeded-up, played by Zappa, once more demonstrating his love for those instruments.

Featuring Captain Beefheart on vocals, and Don "Sugar Cane" Harris on violin (just at the start and the end of the piece, though those high notes one can hear here and there - check at about 6' - make one think of a solo, or part, that went unreleased), Willie the Pimp is a mature meditation on the Blues by Frank Zappa the guitar player, here ably backed by Max Bennett on bass and John Guerin on drums. The whole is quite far, though, from those "Blues Jams" so common at the time - check the different "episodes", with those quite different guitar timbres, which dispel that sense of monotony potentially implied by the track's generous length.

A longer, rearranged version of a Zappa composition already performed on a studio album by The Mothers, Son Of Mr. Green Genes makes good use of Paul Humphrey's considerable drumming expertise - he's fantastic in his punctuating the different sections and moods of this composition; as it's to be expected, Underwood is appropriately versatile on various reeds and keyboards. Again, Zappa the guitar player is at his best in a series of vignettes where the guitar is placed inside a vivacious instrumental framework.

Let's play Side Two, OK? Max Bennett on double bass, together with John Guerin on drums and Ian Underwood on piano starts Little Umbrellas. A lyrical theme that sticks in one's mind, a quite intricate development, double bass, theme, close

The Gumbo Variations literally jumps at you out of your speakers in all its funky glory. Ian Underwood on tenor sax (sounding halfway between King Curtis and Sonny Rollins?), it sports a fine theme and a frenetic sax solo perfectly backed by Paul Humphrey on drums and Max Bennett on bass. Then there's a lengthy, intense violin solo by Sugar Cane Harris, Humphrey's drums here giving a perfect push. There's a brief guitar solo by Zappa, with an appropriate-sounding backing by Underwood on Hammond + Leslie, a fine transition by bass and drums, and out.

The complex piece titled It Must Be A Camel gets an intro by electric bass, piano, drums, and percussion. The careful orchestration places Underwood's winds sometimes coupled with Jean-Luc Ponty violin (the starting point of a fruitful collaboration that in a short while will see the release of the album King Kong, under Ponty's name). A beautiful theme, successfully orchestrated, it offers a fine performance by John Guerin, a subtle Zappa on guitar, percussion, a brief drum solo by Guerin, it's a perfect close for a perfect album.

This new CD release sports an excellent sound, the original 1969 analogue master "Transferred & Re-Mastered by Bernie Grundman". The CD has plenty of volume, but one can turn the volume knob quite a bit to the right without experiencing listening fatigue. Maybe - but it's a matter of taste, almost - the electric bass is a bit "too much", but the sound is clearly defined. The fact of one being able to clearly listen to the whole drum set for the first time was quite surprising - also a tad strange - a lot more skin and wood than on the original album (which makes quite easier for one to appreciate John Guerin's precision on It Must Be A Camel and Paul Humphrey's funky fire on The Gumbo Variations). It was precisely the new "fatness" in the rhythm section that for a moment made me fear a "Hendrix-like" weirdness - here I'm talking about some CD editions of Jimi Hendrix albums which have Mitch Mitchell's drums so big and loud that Hendrix's guitar sounds tiny and feeble - but repeated listening sessions calmed my fears.

Readers have obviously to consider the fact that I've listened to the original vinyl of this album for forty-one years (not the same copy, of course! the one I listened to for this comparison being my faithful Reprise UK pressing from... 1973, I think), and to the new CD for two weeks. But writing the review after listening to the CD for forty-one years didn't look very wise to me...

This is the end of my review, so I'm gonna take off my (infallible) objectivity hat. Listening to such a fantastic album and thinking about all the rubbish I get in my mailbox almost hurts. Different times, different quality standards, different goals, different people. I really didn't know what to say at the end of this review, so I decided to borrow what Frank Zappa called "my humble curse": "May your shit come to life, and kiss you".

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2012 | Aug. 19, 2012