On Being Frank
Zappa's Last Album Finally Sees the Light of Day

There will never be another musician like Frank Zappa.

Which makes sense, since there has never been another musician like him. I own a lot of music, and I’ve heard a lot more, and I can’t name a single artist who pulled from as many different sources as Zappa, and whose brain functioned on the level necessary to bring all those sources together. Zappa was an orchestral composer, a jazz bandleader, a doo-wop balladeer, a sarcastic political commentator, an electronic music pioneer, an avant-garde freakshow and one of the finest rock guitar players to ever walk the earth.

Zappa’s catalog is massive and daunting. Between his debut in 1966 and his death in 1993, he released about 65 albums, some with the Mothers of Invention, most on his own. Many of them were double-record sets, and when the CD era came along, he expanded his scope, creating enough music to fill many two-hour-plus running times. But that’s not what makes it daunting. It’s the sheer scope of his musical range. Zappa could masterfully go from an album of sleazy ‘70s guitar-rock to an album with the London Symphony Orchestra to a three-LP concept piece about censorship and its disastrous consequences. Every one of his albums is maddeningly complex – it’s taken me years, in some cases, to absorb what they have to offer.

Zappa is often dismissed as a novelty artist, because his silliest songs (“Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” “Dinah-Moe Humm,” “Valley Girl”) are his biggest hits. As a humorist, Zappa often left much to be desired, and as time went on, his distaste for lyrics of any stripe fed into his grumpy-old-man streak – his humor ossified into something tasteless and mean. I have a tough time with some of the later Zappa records, which is one reason why I stopped writing my Frank Zappa Buyer’s Guide a few years ago (serialized here). But Zappa the composer and musician still fires my imagination.

Zappa died before I had the chance to discover him – I didn’t start listening to his work until around 1999. I knew, once I began delving into his dense catalog, that this was a journey I’d be taking alone. I love sharing music with people, but Zappa music is tough to recommend. There are no casual Frank Zappa fans. His work demands a patience and a concentration not required by many other artists, and the diverse nature of his work, as well as his penchant for dissonance and complexity, turns many people away. Zappa believed that anything could be music, and spent much of his life tearing down the walls between rock, jazz, orchestral and avant garde.

Late in his life, he discovered a machine called a synclavier. A primitive sequencer, the synclavier allowed Zappa to sample orchestral instruments and compose music electronically. This was a revelation for him – throughout his life, he’d tried to find orchestral ensembles that could play his demanding, challenging, often impossible pieces to perfection, with little success. (His best collaboration on that score, if you’ll pardon the pun, came in 1992 with the Ensemble Modern. Their sessions are preserved on The Yellow Shark, the last album Zappa released in his lifetime.) The synclavier allowed him to realize these extraordinary pieces with precision.

Of course, some called his synclavier work cold, but I’ve always loved it. I’m particularly fond of Civilization Phaze III, a two-hour tour de force he completed before his death. The album shows an amazing growth in Zappa’s ability to use his electronic instrument like an orchestra, and to bring that sound together with his penchant for dark conceptual records. Civilization Phaze III ends with the collapse of the world, and the sound of a crop duster killing the audience. It really was the most final final statement he could have made.

But it wasn’t his final statement. As it turns out, Zappa had two more albums ready to go when he died, and many more in various states of completion. There are some three dozen posthumous Zappa albums now, mostly live collections from various tours and audio documentaries. Zappa’s family has kept a steady stream of unreleased Zappa aimed at the market for the last 22 years, and while I’m certain Frank himself wouldn’t have wanted some of it out there, I’ve enjoyed it all. However, it’s been an agonizing wait to hear Frank’s actual final works. We got one of them, the guitar extravaganza Trance-Fusion, in 2006. But of the other, the synclavier piece Dance Me This, there was no sign for more than two decades.

Well, now it’s here. Dance Me This is the last album Zappa finished before his death, and I’ve been waiting to hear it for as long as I’ve been a Zappa fan. Why it took so long, I will never know – it’s officially the 100th release in Zappa’s catalog, and perhaps Gail Zappa was just waiting for that big round number. The cover image is a drawing by artist and photojournalist Dan Eldon, who also died in 1993. I don’t know if it’s what Frank would have chosen, but it adds a touch of poignancy to this record. We now have the end point, the period to Zappa’s amazing sentence. Here is where he ended up.

The album, of course, was not intended to carry such weight. Like all of his work, Dance Me This just sounds like the next step he took on a long journey. By this point, he’d already combed the archives for his legacy (the You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore series, The Lost Episodes), and he’d already made that final grand statement in Civilization Phaze III. With all that secure, Dance Me This finds him simply getting on with making more music.

Dance Me This was almost entirely composed and performed on the synclavier, and represents another leap forward in his growing skill with the instrument. The entire album segues, like almost every Zappa album does, and it plays like a single piece. Three of these tracks feature the throat singers of Tuva, adding a wonderfully bizarre organic element to the proceedings. The title track, in fact, features throat singing underneath a synclavier piano and percussion bed, and also includes what I expect was Zappa’s final guitar solo, a 15-second little wonder that pops in out of nowhere. If this is the last time Zappa strapped on a guitar in the studio, it’s a nice thing to have.

The centerpiece of this album is the 27-minute “Wolf Harbor,” a piece intended for what was then modern dance. It’s typically dissonant Zappa, setting a dark mood and breaking it with percussion sculptures in the vein of his idol, the composer Edgard Varese. “Wolf Harbor” sounds like a lot of Zappa’s orchestral work – dense and difficult and off-putting at first, but full of riches. As the last major piece he worked on, it’s an impressive, monolithic thing that, to the unfamiliar ear, will just sound like random noise. This is the essence of orchestral Zappa – fiendishly complex material that will appeal to a very small group of people. I’m glad I’m one of them.

The most accessible things here are at the end. “Piano” is seven minutes of holy-hell impossible-to-play piano music, all of it melodic and interesting, and “Calculus” brings the Tuvans back for three minutes of light (yet mathematically fascinating) closing credits music. While much of the record sounds like the next step in Zappa’s computer orchestra style, these songs (and others, like “Goat Polo”) are like just about nothing else in his catalog. Given the size and scope of his catalog, that’s impressive by itself. That Zappa was still pushing himself musically only weeks from his death, and coming up with pieces like “Wolf Harbor” and “Piano,” is astonishing.

If I’m making Dance Me This sound like hard work, well, it is. Like all of Zappa’s “serious” music, it’s almost frighteningly complicated, and Zappa didn’t care if you liked it. In many ways, I’m glad that this experimental record is the one that caps Zappa’s career. It shows with perfect clarity a musician who never stopped moving forward, never stopped growing, never stopped breaking into new territory. As much as I would have liked to hear the next 10 Zappa albums after this one, I’m glad I can finally listen to Dance Me This, and can finally see the shape of the man’s entire career. There will never be another like him.

You can get Dance Me This (and every Zappa album) direct from his family at zappa.com.

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So now it’s time for the 2015 Halftime Report. I know we have one more June column, but it’ll be kind of a busy one, so I wanted to do this now. What follows is what my top 10 list would look like if I were forced to write and release it now. If you saw my First Quarter Report in March, you know that the top picks haven’t changed. But there are some interesting additions to the bottom five, I think. Here’s what we have:

10. Mew, + –.
9. They Might Be Giants, Glean.
8. Florence and the Machine, How Big How Blue How Beautiful.
7. Copeland, Ixora.
6. The Weepies, Sirens.
5. Aqualung, 10 Futures.
4. Timbre, Sun and Moon.
3. Quiet Company, Transgressor.
2. Punch Brothers, The Phosphorescent Blues.
1. (Tie) Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly; Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell.

I’m not sure there’s anything coming down the pike that could beat Kendrick Lamar and Sufjan Stevens, but there are some very promising releases in the next few months. Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free is out in a couple weeks – Isbell is playing the Two Brothers Summer Festival here in Aurora, Illinois this weekend, and his Southeastern made my 2013 top 10 list. Tame Impala and Foals have new records, and they’re two of my favorite modern rock bands. Ben Folds has an album called So There with a chamber orchestra. Iron Maiden will release their first double album (92 minutes long!) in September. And Mutemath will come roaring back with an as-yet-unscheduled fourth record called Vitals.

So anything can change. Be here next week as we talk about a more contenders from Joy Williams and Everything Everything. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.