Jazz From Hell. Shut Up'n Play Yer Guitar.

By Paulette Weiss & Michael Wright

Audio, July 1987

Jazz from Hell: Frank Zappa
Rykodisc RCD 10030.

Shut Up'n Play Yer Guitar: Frank Zappa
Rykodisc RCD 10028/29, two-disc set.

Attention-grabbing, disquieting, sometimes beautiful – Frank Zappa's Jazz from Hell is an utterly intriguing offering. All of the eight instrumental cuts plunge forward from their opening notes in a nonstop sprint for the finish line, ignoring the conventional break/bridge/chorus format. Each cut (with one exception) is a complex interweaving of Zappa's constantly jabbing, flowing, leaping work on the Synclavier DMS with bits and pieces of guitar, other keyboards, bass, and drums, to form restless patterns that vary from the almost-melodic to the frenzied and discordant.

Some of this stuff is difficult to listen to. The title cut, for instance, although intellectually intriguing, is cast in a minor key that grates on the ear. On "Massagio Galore," the human snorts, grunts, shouts, and eerie moans running over a jangling, roiling synthesizer-and-percussion combination might make you ask, "What the hell is that?" on first hearing. On the other hand, the more accessible cuts are quite beautiful, with constantly shifting, gliding, bobbing instrumentation that draws the mind into a wonderful dance. (One of these, "St. Etienne," is the only cut to be based on electric guitar rather than the Synclavier.)

Jazz from Hell is one of the rare original digital recordings in the pop sector, and the sound is superb. Every distant squawk, every finger snap, every subtle bass rumble is caught with perfect fidelity. In the arranged maelstroms that often strike on this disc, every instrument maintains its integrity, and every note, no matter the volume, is captured undistorted.

From his Mothers of Invention days to his more recent misanthropic period, Zappa has striven to both outrage and enlighten, often sacrificing the latter for the former. It sounds as if he's hit just about the perfect balance on Jazz from Hell.

Paulette Weiss

It feels like a long step back from Jazz from Hell to Shut Up'n Play Yer Guitar, a set of live-concert guitar solos dating from 1977-1980 but exhibiting a San Francisco psychedelic sensibility straight out of the 1960s. In fact, Zappa acknowledges this with suitably ironic self-commentary in the tune "Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression."

As with everything Zappa does, this music is both satirical and serious. By extracting solos out of context, Zappa pimps guitar freaks yet demonstrates very respectable technique. And a great deal of care was put into assembling this collage; constructed of various moments from around the world, it almost succeeds as one large work.

You won't find nice, neat "songs" on Shut Up'n Play Yer Guitar, but you will find a nonstop guitar assault which yields an effect not unlike serial classical music. And beware: It could cause flashbacks.

Michael Wright