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Frank Zappa - Jazz from Hell CD (album) cover


Frank Zappa



3.43 | 254 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
2 stars I can only hope that Frank Zappa meant this oddball novelty album as a parody, maybe of the self-indulgent virtuosity driving much of Prog Rock (try to play this, Mr. Wakeman!) But after learning more about the man it's clear he must have wanted it taken seriously.

The result is automated computer music from a misanthropic genius and notorious control freak, trying to compose impossibly complex music without the distraction of human involvement, typically the one thing that gives music its life. The album was created entirely by Zappa on the newest toy in his basement studio: the Synclavier, a digital sampler sold at the time as the next step in musical evolution.

Whatever else it might be, the music here sure ain't Jazz (or Rock, for that matter). All the hyperactive pre-programmed ostinatos are related instead to the dodecaphonic serialism of Varèse, Schoenberg, and the avant-garde heroes of Zappa's precocious adolescence. It's certainly a unique experience (who would expect anything less from Uncle Frank?), but the album is also unlistenable for much of its (thankfully brief) 34-minute length.

Even more frustrating is how such supposedly impossible-to-play music could in fact have been performed by several Zappa bandmates. You can't tell me that STEVE VAI or ADRIAN BELEW couldn't have mastered even the adrenalin overdose of 'G-Spot Tornado', later adapted by Ensemble Modern on Zappa's final orchestral project, 'The Yellow Shark'.

And why include on the same disc a four-year old live recording with an eight-piece band? This one track ('St. Etienne', recorded on tour in France in 1982) stands out like a happily sore thumb, undermining the promise of the Synclavier and making the balance of the album sound even more sterile than it already is.

An unreconstructed social misfit like Zappa must have had a good laugh when the album earned a Grammy Award, for (believe it or not) 'Best Rock Instrumental Performance'. I like to imagine his acerbic response: "the suckers probably don't even know the whole thing was programmed!" (...although he probably would have used another word rhyming with 'suckers').

Practical joke or sober post-modern experiment, 'Jazz From Hell' certainly deserves to be heard at least once, especially for students of such an idiosyncratic talent. Whether it's worth playing a second time is still open to debate.

Neu!mann | 2/5 |


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