Frank Zappa - Halloween
I don't get Zappa. Despite valiant efforts by those who have tried to bring me round to the humour in his work - the playing of Bobby Brown and the like - it's had a similar effect to them breaking the news to me that a close relative of mine has just died. So strong is my opinion that 'there must be something here...' that I have indeed watched 200 Motels only to be left at the end of the showing wondering (a) how better I could have spent the previous 98 minutes and (b) why there weren't as many naked women in it as I had imagined there might be. There were, however, plenty of hairy guys, which is where Zappa comes back in...
Still, all of that was a long time ago and when the opportunity of reviewing a Frank Zappa album presented itself, curiousity and optimism persisted. The album itself is a compilation release of live segments originally recorded around Hallowe'en 1978 and is being made available through DTS Entertainment in the UK on a DVD with DVD-A, DTS 5.1 and PCM stereo audio tracks. Ignoring the geek talk about bitrates for a moment, Halloween is a dreadful album and one of the few instances when I have worked hard to make it to the end of the disc. Why? Well, much of what tends to be written about Zappa does struggle to get away from saying anything more than that his music was technically complex. Before nodding and saying that, yes, technically complex music is inherently good given that it's capable of showing the virtuosity of the musicians involved, let me just say, "Emerson, Lake and Palmer". Hell, I'll even raise that a, "Rick Wakeman" and that's without bringing out the notoriously big yet emotionally barren albums of Genesis, Radiohead and Yes. Complex? Yes, but give a monkey a flute and you wouldn't be far from Jethro Tull, which might be tricky but it don't rock.
It's hard to come up with a moment in the album that really stands out but NYC Audience - the 1m17s of crowd noise before Zappa's band starts playing - has got to be pretty much up there. There's a bit of heavy riffing towards the end of Stink-Foot that isn't that bad but the rest is the kind of nonsense that sixth-form bands from public schools once considered challenging - guitars noodle, clunky 1978 keyboards burp over the music and on top of it all is Zappa's singing of songs titled Don't Eat The Yellow Snow and Dinah-Moe Humm. I once heard of Zappa being rather optimistically described as a scathing wit but there's scant evidence of it here.
Back on the techie stuff and it's fair to say that the 5.1 remix doesn't really work. The booklet mentions that "Zeets", which is a track written and performed solo by the drummer - and note how far your heart has sunk on hearing that phrase - will be a particular highlight for fans of 5.1 remixes. 2m59s of drumming being panned around the room then, do you think? Give yourself a gold star if you guessed right! Otherwise, the album does not sound particularly strong with Zappa's vocal being too far forward in the mix and the bass being far from distinct throughout. The drummer, in particular, sounds as though he's playing with knitting needles and anyone who's ever taped a gig onto cassette off the mixing desk will wonder what happened to the supposed advance in sound quality that DVD-A was meant to bring.
Zappa fans will doubtless lap it up - this is officially album number seventy-one - but there's little here that will convince Zappa virgins that they've been missing out on an undiscovered gem. For me, I still don't get Zappa but I'll get back to him in another twelve years and see if anything has changed.