Wednesday, May 27, 2009

May 27: Frank Zappa, "Hot Rats"

Artist: Frank Zappa
Album: Hot Rats
Year: 1969
Label: Bizarre/Reprise

When it comes to outright musical genius, there are few artists (if any) that can be mentioned in the same breath as Frank Zappa. Moving well beyond the status of "musician," and standing as one of rock and rolls' true musical composers, his body of work remains well beyond the grasp of nearly every other musician in history. Constantly innovating and pushing the limits of what could be done musically, as well as approaching the recording studio as an instrument in itself, Zappa's impact on music is nearly immeasurable. Having disbanded the legendary Mothers Of Invention, Zappa set off to further his legacy with a more than forty equally brilliant solo records throughout the late 1960's and 1970's. Setting the mark for what is by far, the most perfect fusion of rock and jazz ever recorded, Zappa's talents shine as bright as very on the stunning 1969 release, Hot Rats.

Hot Rats is truly a jazz-rock masterpiece, highlighted by phenomenal instrumental orchestrations, which combine classical structures with some of the most experimental approaches ever heard. The album, which was produced entirely by Zappa himself, was recorded on Zappa's own homemade "sixteen track recorder," (for and eight track recordings were still the standard at the time) which pre-dated the "standard" sixteen track recorded by months. It is this additional track space which allowed for the amazing depth to the record, featuring a mind-boggling number of over-dubs and additional instrumentation. Additionally, with the sixteen tracks, Hot Rats is possibly the first rock record to feature a "true stereo" sound from the drums, as the track limitations had previously made such an impossible task. This becomes even more significant, as Zappa also used Hot Rats to pioneer "tape speed manipulation." On tracks like "Peaches En Regalia" and "It Must Be A Camel," Zappa recorded the basic drum tracks in "double time," and then added overdubs in "normal time," which then appear to be playing at "half time" when compared to the first recording. This technique also altered the pitch and tone of the drums, and the percussion sounds like nothing else that had ever been heard. Zappa applied this technique to a number of other instruments throughout Hot Rats, and the results give the album one of the most distinctive sounds one will find anywhere in the history of music. While, in our modern era, these feats may seem commonplace, the reality is, Zappa presented flawless use of these techniques decades before modern, digital recording equipment simplified this process.

As previously stated, Hot Rats is a peerless fusion of jazz and rock style. While the compositions stick to the jazz structure, the attitude and presentation of the music remains gritty, and loose. Zappa's own distorted and scruffy guitar tone finally finds a perfect home on Hot Rats, and his true prowess on the guitar is unleashed during the superb extended solo sections. Zappa openly despised the psychedelic movement of the time, and Hot Rats truly represents one of the few rock records of the time that really has no traces of psychedelia, aside from the "jam" sections. Aside from a few moments on "It Must Be A Camel," the record barely approaches anything else that was being done musically at the time, either in rock or jazz. Incorporating everything from harmonicas to "snorks," Zappa was not one to exclude any instrument or sound. The flawless manner in which Zappa was able to work any instrument into the rock-jazz structure is perhaps no more evident than on the jammed out "violin solo," delivered by frequent Mothers of Invention and Bluesbreaker collaborator, Don "Sugarcane" Harris, found on "The Gumbo Variations." Aside from Zappa, the only other musician who is a constant on Hot Rats is Mothers' holdover and multi-instrumentalist, Ian Underwood. On some of the tracks Underwood can be heard playing nearly ten different instruments, again thanks to the innovative recording techniques on the record. Whether playing the organ or a number of other keyboards or adding sax or flute, Underwood proves a formidable musical partner for Zappa throughout the record.

The lengthy, solo laden songs found on Hot Rats were, at the time, a great divergence from the satire-filled, concentrated songs that Zappa had presented with The Mothers Of Invention. In fact, the only vocals found anywhere on Hot Rats appear in the gruff and sleazy vocals to "Willie The Pimp." The vocals were delivered not by Zappa, but by one Don Glenn Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. Zappa had produced Beefhearts' legendary Trout Mask Replica a few months before the Hot Rats sessions, and Beefheart's vocals on the track are absolutely ideal for the song. While there are no other lyrics on the record, Zappa was able to bring his trademark wit and sarcasm to Hot Rats in even more ingenious ways than ever before. Case in point is in the somewhat odd track title, "It Must Be A Camel." While on the surface, the song appears to be a wild jam with a strange name, if one writes out the music notes played, the resulting pen on paper redoubtably resembles the humps on a camel's back. Knowing how truly genius Zappa was, one can clearly see this as another brilliant "inside joke" from Zappa.

The name "Frank Zappa" alone demands respect, and his works remain both unmatched and influential, even with many approaching fifty years in age. Both musically and technically, there are few, if any, artists that have talent enough to be mentioned in the same sentence as Zappa. In both quantity and content, there virtually no musicians that even come close the the musical contributions that Frank Zappa gave to the world. Whether working with The Mothers Of Invention or his own solo efforts, there is not a "bad" moment to be found on any of the more than sixty records he released before his death in 1993. With his first true solo effort, Hot Rats, Zappa created the quintessential jazz-rock record, as well as pioneering recording techniques that are still used to this day. Though Hot Rats features a number of amazing musicians, there is never a question that Zappa is the true "star" of the album on each and every track. Whether providing a jaw-dropping solo, or setting in motion the perfect melody, Hot Rats showcases Zappa and his unsurpassed musical brilliance like never before. Few will argue that a single artist has contributed as much in size and substance to the world of music as Frank Zappa, and the truth behind this opinion becomes undeniably obvious throughout Zappa's first true solo release, the utterly fantastic 1969 release, Hot Rats.

Standout tracks: "Peaches En Regalia," "Willie The Pimp," and "The Gumbo Variations."

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