By Mark Peel

Stereo Review, November 1983

Over the years a number of major orchestras, including the Los Angeles and London Philharmonics, have performed the orchestral music of Frank Zappa. While this may have much to do with Zappa's personal persistence, as well as the near-bankrupt condition of twentieth-century serious composition in general, it's clear that, as rock musicians go, Zappa is an accomplished composer. A perceptive and critical student of music theory, he has developed a highly individual, identifiable style, in part a synthesis of the percussion-based techniques of Varèse and, to a lesser degree, Stravinsky, and in part a product of what Zappa freely admits are his own "warped sensibilities." His music is uniquely capable of eliciting terror or laughter, but it has absolutely no warmth.

The London Symphony's new album "Zappa, Volume I," on Zappa's own Barking Pumpkin label, is the most lavish and flattering presentation of his orchestral music to date. It reveals his remarkable strengths as an arranger and scorer as well as his complete lack of interest in conventional melodic values – an unconcern that plagues much of contemporary music. The pieces here have no unifying structure (I don't care what's written in the score) that is discernible to the average – or above-average – ear. Rather, they are vast, linear expanses of sound, series of spliced-together patterns of notes that could conceivably be called melodies but instantly dissolve in a cacophony of horn blasts or drum rolls.

It turns out that Zappa is not exactly a wellspring of new ideas; many of these clipped themes have appeared, with minor differences, in some of his more ambitious earlier works, such as "200 Motels." These phrases are almost personal mannerisms for him. But, although Zappa may recycle them from album to album, he never repeats any of them within a piece, so it's all but impossible to hold onto the music. Once it's passed, it's gone for good. The effect is deliberate, of course, but not particularly satisfying for the listener.

On the other hand, the sounds Zappa coaxes from an orchestra are fascinating. Because he's a tireless experimenter and a seasoned performer, he has a deep understanding of the capabilities of the instruments he writes for. He gets more interesting sounds from the string choir, for instance, than John Williams has ever managed, and no one else I know of can get the kind of attenuated, woozy sound from the brass that Zappa does. He exploits fully the menacing/hilarious duality of the woodwinds, and he is an unrivaled master in the use of percussion. It is on this level of sheer aural experience that "Zappa, Volume I" succeeds best.

In his latest straight rock album, however, Zappa is simply insufferable. Never one to dodge the tough issues, on "The Man from Utopia" he mounts his soap box once again to tell us exactly what's wrong with our sick society: executive suites reeking with recreational drugs, corrupt labor-union bosses sealing deals with the Mafia, eighteen-year-old coeds who rediscover the word "no," after five years of voracious sex, just as the band rolls into town, and an alarming, widespread lack of interest in basic kitchen sanitation. Let me add a couple of things about this society that "The Man from Utopia" reminded me that I object to: self-righteous harpies who don't apply the same moral standards to a horny bass player as to teenage girls; and pompous, self-important artists who've forgotten what it's like to have an original idea.

Zappa may be the only person left who still thinks grade-B monster movies from the Fifties are a fresh subject for parody. This album could have been called "Blah blah blah," so shopworn and perfunctory are its themes. The only new wrinkle is Zappa's latest vocal mannerism – a droning, half-witted, atonal delivery that is, to put it plainly, unbearable. There are three fairly interesting instrumentals buried here, but the chances are exceedingly slim that you'll be able to endure the rest of the garbage to get to them. Zappa the serious composer leaves me uneasy, but Zappa the rocker just turns me off.

FRANK ZAPPA: Zappa, Volume I. London Symphony Orchestra, Kent Nagano cond. Sad Jane; Pedro's Dowry; Envelopes; Mo 'n Herb's Vacation. BARKING PUMPKIN ◑ FW 38820, © FWT 38.820, no list price.

FRANK ZAPPA: The Man from Utopia. Frank Zappa (vocals, guitar, synthesizer, Lynn drum); vocal and instrumental accompaniment. Cocaine Decisions; The Dangerous Kitchen; Tink Walks Amok; The Radio Is Broken; Moggio; The Man from Utopia Meets Mary Lou; Stick Together; Sex; The Jazz Discharge Party Hats; We Are Not Alone. BARKING PUMPKIN FW 38403, © FWT 38403, no list price.