Nature Has Forever (2019)

I was interviewed by the experimental music blog Caliper Music. Read the full interview here. Website founder, Matt Ackerman, comments on the album Nature Has Forever:

“It’s a unique, accessible exploration of organic sounds and techniques in music making. From the title, you can gather there is an attempt to return to some unadulterated, back-to-basics, or “natural” aesthetic.”

-Matt Ackerman, Caliper Music

“If you are looking for new sounds to add to your routine, take a look at the latest Anthony Weis , no doubt, has something that will give another color to your days.”

Zone Nights music review

Nature Has Forever is an experimental acoustic album self-released by musician Anthony Weis. The album contains instrumental pieces touching on Country Folk, Progressive/Post Rock, Soundscape/Minimalism, and World Music.

Many homemade instruments are featured throughout, ranging from percussive beats consisting of wood piles, drawers, and junk heaps, to one stringed instruments that have been plucked, sampled, and distorted. Soundscapes underlie many of the songs, ranging from sounds in nature to manipulated ambient recordings. One of the goals in making this record was to create unique sounds all my own.

Nature Has Forever follows up the instrumental guitar rock album Smashed Against Infinity (2017) and the four piece ambient rock/soundscape suite Sound Continuous (2016).

Bandcamp: https://anthonyweis.bandcamp.com/album/nature-has-forever

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/39gFntFLlMrhruZFWHM21o

Release Date: May 1st, 2019

Track Listing

  1. Four Strings (3:42)
  2. Slide Slide Harmonica (3:14)
  3. Back To The Primitive (2:49)
  4. Notes Out Of Season (4:06)
  5. Absurd Melodies (3:53)
  6. Bewilderness (3:31)
  7. Front Country (3:32)
  8. Fall Reprise (2:11)
  9. Banjo, Banjo (3:21)
  10. Up, Glorious Soil! (2:48)
  11. Man’s Pursuit Of Purpose (4:27)
  12. Where The Raw Breeze Blows (3:13)
  13. Incessant Sunlit Fields (3:14)

The History of Experimental Rock in 10 Albums

The following serves as a primer for those interested in learning more about experimental rock and its origins.  Similar to how it’s said that the blues are the roots and rock & roll is the tree and branches, this article will take a look at experimental rock’s lineage throughout the decades via ten milestone albums.  A lot will be left out, but the main touchstones upon which genres like post-rock, shoegaze, industrial, math rock, and the like build their foundations will be hit upon.

Before we begin, let’s take a moment to put some guardrails around what’s eligible for this list, with the word “rock” serving as the main delineator.  Although pioneering genres such as minimalism, avant garde classical, free jazz, and experimental pop are inexplicably intertwined in this genealogy, they will not be considered as I see those as unique categories unto themselves.  Understandably then, classics such as Bitches BrewSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Stravinsky/John Cage/Edgar Varese will all be left out.

Let’s begin our list in the 1960’s with a now well know avant garde rock ‘n roll band…

I.  The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

Artist: The Velvet Underground

A strong argument can be made that Lou Reed and company pioneered a large variety of genres, but with their debut they undeniably blazed a trail that the following artists have taken, and experimental rock’s Mt. Rushmore surely must feature a bust of Lou Reed.  Although some may argue that White Light/White Heat was more boundary pushing, this debut record, featuring droning violas, free/noise guitar solos, and great song writing, make this record is as good a starting place as any in tracing this history.

With “Sunday Morning”, the album opens innocently enough, but the simple melody quickly morphs from lullaby into something more unsettling.  A bit further along “Venus In Furs” immerses the listener in what could easily be called trance music from a pagan cult ritual.  The combination of primitive drumming, droning guitars and violas, and Lou Reed’s lyrics invoke a slowly unfolding ancient ceremony featuring a bunch of guys in black robes.  But fortunately, or unfortunately, the chorus brings things back into a familiar zone, a “rock” zone, connecting the album where “I’m Waiting For My Man” left off to where it will next pick up with “Run Run Run”.

Every track is essential, and it would be tiresome to mention them all here.  But obviously the epic “Heroin” is the centerpiece, and “European Son” finds the band stretching out a bit for an extended avant jam session, very much reminiscent of what would be coming just a year later on their next album.  For those interested in more, be sure to investigate Lou Reed’s solo career, especially Street HassleThe Bells, and The Blue Mask.

II.  Trout Mask Replica (1969)

Artist: Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band

With Trout Mask Replica we’re still in the neighborhood of what can be considered “avant garde rock ‘n roll”, but things have gotten a lot weirder, and probably purposely so.  It may come as a surprise to some that, despite all the recited poetry, out of time guitar parts, and other generally bizarre moments, Trout Mask Replica was vigorously rehearsed to the point where the band played it the same, note for note, cover to cover, every time they performed it.  This is not simply a case of a bunch of musicians making noise and improvising on the spot.

This is most clear in tracks like “Moonlight On Vermont” and “Pachuco Cadaver”, where grating, borderline irritating sections give way to a joyous release of sweet melody.  These more taxing sections, as in both songs just mentioned, work to provide a brilliant counterpoint when the chorus finally hits, and it’s this “pain” that makes the magnificent parts seem all the more stunning.  These elements, adapted from classical music, will be seen as a theme throughout the rest of this list.

III.  Tago Mago (1971)

Artist: Can

Can has done many great things, but for the sake of choosing just one album, I think…I think it has to be this record.  It is raw sounding, the drums are vigorous and generously set high up in the mix.  The openings of the two best tracks “Halleluhwah” and “Paperhouse” may not sound too exotic to an ear weaned on 1970’s era rock, but these pieces, and they really are more so “pieces” than “songs”, evolve like Zeppelin and the like never attempted, forging new sonic territory for following generations to pick up and run with.

The main gripe many have with this album is the last three tracks, and admittedly, they are weaker, but also different, and they are moments worth mining from those extended tracks.  Other great Kraut-Rock bands to check out are:  Neu!, Popol Vuh, Kraftwerk, Cluster, and Faust, just to name the best of the best.

IV.  Close To The Edge (1972)

Artist: Yes

Prog Rock gets a bad rap, and just because I’m penning this list doesn’t mean I’m going to defend it.  Prog just has not aged well, if it were ever fully ripened to begin with.  None the less, Yes, a band that will always be historically mentioned in the same sentence as prog, is a great band.  And Closer To The Edge is probably their definitive statement, one they had been working up to ever since and could not repeat subsequently on albums such as Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973) nor Relayer (1974).

Consisting of three epic tracks, Closer to the Edge takes a few listens to sink in and its full picture doesn’t come into view until hearing it from end to end.  The title track, similarly to what was mentioned above regarding Beefheart, makes use of the ugly/beautiful dynamic quite well.  The cacophony of the intro segues right into what is most likely the band’s catchiest guitar lick in their entire catalogue.  The other interesting element to this record is the beautiful folk songs buried within, mainly in “And You And I”.  Stripped down to the basics, it would stand as a classic British folk tune.

V.  Here Come The Warm Jets (1973)

Artist: Brian Eno

Before Brian Eno pioneered ambient music, and really the production aesthetics of much of music history to follow, he had a run of strong experimental rock albums. Beginning in 1973 with Here Come The Warm Jets though 1977’s Before And After Science, the four albums found here rank amongst the decade’s finest. It was his debut, however, that was his best, both in terms of experimental techniques and song writing.

The first two tracks are a good indicator of what will follow throughout the rest of the record, a straightforward pop-rock song in “Needle In The Camel’s Eye” and the much stranger “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch”. Even a simple song like the former, in Eno’s hands, keeps the interest level high with interesting production values, hard panned drums, synth/guitar wall of sound, etc. The latter is a quirky little song, but with quirkier instrumental moments. I still remember the first time I encountered that synth solo and realizing I had never heard anything like it. It’s still one of my all-time favorite instrumental moments.

In a similar vein to Eno, Bowie’s late 1970s/early 1980s work is a recommended next listen in this line, especially the albums Station To Station and Low.

VI.  Over-Nite Sensation (1973)

Artist: Frank Zappa

Zappa may be best known as a Jazz Rock pioneer (Hot Rats and The Grand Wazoo), for 1960’s freak-rock (Freak Out!Absolutely Free, and We’re Only In It For The Money), novelty songs (“Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” and “Valley Girl”), or his one Grammy received during his lifetime (Jazz From Hell), but unfortunately, today he is not as well remembered for his incredible boundary pushing experimental rock.  Any of his early 1970s albums would be a great showcase for this side of his music, Over-Nite Sensation (1973), Apostrophe (1974), Roxy & Elsewhere (1974), and One Size Fits All (1975).

On his 1973 effort, two main things are of note.  Firstly is Frank’s blazing guitar solos, but maybe blazing isn’t the best word because he was never a mindless shredder.  “Instant Composition”, as he liked to call it, would probably be better. Secondly, are the innovative song structures and compositional techniques that he has fit into these traditional riff based rock songs.  “Zomby Woof”, for instance, has a remarkable number of instruments, quick interludes, and surprise turns as one could hope for, but it never sounds forced and the end result is still just a great rock song.  For a deeper dive into Frank’s back catalogue see my primer for beginners.

VII.  Loveless (1991)

Artist:  My Bloody Valentine

Skipping ahead a decade and we come upon one of the great guitar records of all time.  The most remarkable thing about Loveless is probably the sound of the guitars themselves, as opposed to what they’re actually playing.  This spectacular wall of noise is remarkable upon first listen and has spawned a lot of followers, but it’s my opinion that no shoegaze band has really done justice to what this record had pioneered and the best followers come from other genres completely.  Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins, on early albums Pisces Iscariot and Siamese Dream, clearly owe a large debt to this record and have pushed it farer than any of the shoegaze bands.

VIII.  Agaetis byrjun (1999)

Artist: Sigur Ros

Sigur Ros are the masters of the subtly epic, pieces that slowly build up to grand crescendos.  On Agaetis byrjun the melodies are sweet and the Eno influenced atmospheres are a large part of what makes this album a classic.  Although bands had been creating similar styles of music since Galaxie 500 in the late 1980s, it wasn’t until Sigur Ros that the style reached full maturity, and the 10 tracks on this album are a testament to how grand a statement it can make.

IX.  Frances The Mute (2005)

Artist:  The Mars Volta

The Mars Volta rank as one of the most innovative bands of the new millennium and Frances The Mute is their space-rock masterpiece.  The opener, “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus” segues seamlessly from an acoustic opening to hard rock, funk, then ambient, all without appearing forced.  The instrumentation is topnotch and the guitar solos wail throughout thanks to the talents of John Frusciante.

The climax of album takes place somewhere in the midst of the epic final track, the 32 minute “Cassandra Gemini”, which Spotify groups as all one track, unfortunately.  On the CD version, this behemoth is split into more manageable chunks.  Despite all the ambient/avant garde flourishes, the riffs stay heavy and funky, which is an incredible balance to strike.  Regrettably, The Mars Volta has broken up ending the run of the only truly innovative stadium rock band we had, but between their first three albums and parts of the next three, they left quite a legacy.

Other modern experimental albums to check out are All Hour Cymbals by Yeasayer, tUnE-yArDs’ Whokill, and Menomena’s Friend and Foe.

X.  Take Care, Take Care, Take Care (2011)

Artist: Explosions In The Sky

And now we finally come to the end of the line, in our current decade, and although you can easily trace Explosions In The Sky’s relevance back more than a decade prior to the release of this album, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care is their crowning achievement.  It’s neither their most well-known nor probably most beloved by fans, but it is their most consistent album with not a moment wasted.  A rare feat for any post-rock band.

One of the things that set EITS above all the other very good post-rock bands is their ability to create beautiful guitar melodies and counterpoints that weave in and out of one another with the most glorious of guitar tones.  One fatal flaw of any aspiring experimental artist is the neglect for nice melodies, as if having a catchy tune makes the music “less serious”.  This couldn’t be farther from the truth.  No matter what the genre, crafting a fine melody is the hardest part of the task and really, is what music is all about.

————

Rock’s death has been proclaimed loudly and vehemently many times since its creation in the early to mid-20th century, but despite all this, it is still going strong.  One can hope that experimental rock will continue to evolve, innovate, and pull the mainstream ever so slightly down the path of new creation.  Although it maintains its status on the fringes of public conscious, it is experimental music that propels the music of the masses ever forward.

This article was written in conjunction with the release of Smashed Against Infinity, my own experimental rock album.  Smashed Against Infinity on Spotify.

————

 

Smashed Against Infinity (2017)

“My favourite track this week.”

-The ‘Spill on the track “Creation’s Riff”

Smashed Against Infinity is the 4th album by experimental musician Anthony Weis, released on March 1st, 2017.

“Quick work doesn’t mean less serious work, it depends on one’s self confidence and experience…I must warn you that everyone will think I work too fast…and that in time to come there will again be hard days, empty of inspiration. So one must strike while the iron is hot.”

-Vincent Van Gogh

The writing and recording of Smashed Against Infinity, my 4th and latest album, came together with a burst of energy unlike any project previously.  Midway through creating what I thought would be my next record, I got the distracting urge to write loud, more aggressive music, which in turn lead me back to my roots.  After beginning this album in September 2016, the music flooded out instinctively, with little rational oversight.  It was completely mixed by December.

Noisy garage rock, my roots, is what the album ended up becoming.  The goal was the sound of a loud rock band jamming in a garage somewhere.  This element was always present in my work, but here I decided it should become the focal point, for at least one album.

I further looked to the past through the reimagining of three songs that appeared on my first record Knowledge & Compromise.  These tracks reemerge completely dismembered and rearranged with 75%+ newly recorded parts, as “Creation’s Riff”, “Smashed Against Infinity”, and “Thus Spoke The Mountains”.  In their original form they’re a bit lacking, but had a spark I wanted to carve out and create a new piece around.

The rest of the album follows a similar suit, plenty of guitar tapping …distortion/fuzz…feedback…and some world music flourishes to add an additional layer to the mix.

This album follows up the four piece ambient rock suite Sound Continuous (2016), the sparser minimal rock album Aubade Crowning (2014), and the eclectic Knowledge & Compromise.  Smashed Against Infinity is available March 1st, 2017.

Stream the album via Spotify.

Buy the album via Bandcamp.

Stream the album via Soundcloud.

Track Listing

  1. Creation’s Riff (4:02)
  2. Bright Crisp Morning (4:14)
  3. What Else Is Sacred (4:58)
  4. Smashed Against Infinity (3:04)
  5. Oblivion Studies (3:12)
  6. Painting A Bridge In Arles (3:12)
  7. Eternity Sketches (3:19)
  8. Still Life With American Novels (3:45)
  9. Joy & Living (3:37)
  10. Thus Spoke The Mountains (4:13)
  11. Of All Achievement (3:56)

© 2017, Anthony Weis. All Rights Reserved.

Sound Continuous (2016)

“Sound Continuous is a unique take on music and field recordings, where compositions accompany the recordings. Musically, it draws from acoustic music, rock, classical music, and a bunch of other genres and styles…their incorporation into the long field recordings is what makes them special. Give it a try!”

-Can This Even Be Called Music?

 “Sound Continuous” refers to the nature of sound itself.  On a spectrum ranging from random noise to written melody, there is typically an accepted point delineating sound as either “music” or “non-music”.  On this album, my third,  I reject that such a point actually exists, and blend noises from the world with my written music.  Street ambience, bird songs, clanking of pots and pans all find their place on Sound Continuous.

Arranged as four 15-minute suites, these collage pieces roughly represent the passage of time, both from morning to night, spring to winter, and birth to death.

All of the sounds on this record are my own, no samples were used.  The field recordings were captured walking around near where I live, in and around Chicago.

A companion album, SC Singles, consists of some of the main songs, but not all, taken out and presented on their own, for a different listening experience.  These records follow up Aubade Crowning (2014) & all albums are now streaming everywhere.

Open in Spotify:  Anthony Weis – Sound Continuous

Full Tracklist

THOUGHTS FROM A BEGINNER (15:03)

In Through The Front Door (0:00)
And So It Begins (0:26)
To Plan A Life (2:50)
Sonar Messages Home (4:21)
Walking Through This Old House (5:06)
House Full Of Nothing (5:27)
Word From The Sea (8:02)
Limit Of Meaning (9:17)
Mind Looks Inward (11:07)
Sounds From The Yard (11:48)

SOUNDS FROM THE WORKSHOP (15:15)

Rummaging Through The Baker’s Rack (0:00)
In Italian Gardens (0:18)
Borrowed Scenery (2:02)
Sit And Wait (2:37)
Noise From Down The Hall (3:43)
Various Ways To Waste A Minute (4:03)
Some Remote Thoughts (8:24)
A Collection Of Things (8:53)
Strings From The Hills (9:15)
Emptiness in A Major (9:40)
Street Scene (10:06)
Well, That Makes Infinity (10:26)
Sun Running (12:08)
Back Through The Woods (12:32)

INTO NIGHT (15:15)

Chorus Verse Chorus (0:00)
Working Through The Night (3:19)
Warning Storms (5:54)
The Only Way I Know (6:07)
Warning Rains (7:12)
See, Anything Is Music (7:43)
Never Surprised (7:54)
The Bridge (9:57)
Night, Just Outside The Workshop Window (10:15)
A Calm Spot (12:24)
The Breakdown (13:11)
Honing My Craft (13:24)

PATHS CONVERGE TO SPLIT AGAIN (15:52)

Trying To Calm The Mind (0:00)
Old Knowledge Revisited (0:20)
Unable To Sleep (3:28)
Days Of Simpler Pleasure (3:40)
Two Thirty-Five AM (4:30)
More Weird Dreams (5:00)
More Noise About Nothing (7:03)
Everything Back Into Noise (8:03)
Sounds From The Dark Corners (10:28)
Almost Finishing (10:51)
And So It Ends (15:12)

Release Date:  May, 2016  //  Credits:  All sounds by Anthony Weis  //  (c) 2015 Anthony Weis. All rights reserved.

SC Singles (2016)

 SC Singles is the companion album to Sound Continuous and features some of the main songs as free standing tracks for a different listening experience.

Open in Spotify:  Anthony Weis – Sc Singles

Release Date:  May, 2016  //  Credits:  All sounds by Anthony Weis  //  (c) 2015 Anthony Weis. All rights reserved.

 

Melodies in Binary (2015)

 This is the commissioned score to the podcast series “The Podcast Producers”, which first aired in April, 2015.  The show explores the state of podcasting today and what we can expect in the future.  Hosted by Corey Coates and Jessica Rhodes, the show brings in many great guests from podcasts large and small, to give their opinions and insights on a variety of topics.

For the score, I wanted to give the music a slightly futuristic feel, but still retain a certain warmth that can be lost in that aim.  What I ended up with is a set of songs that approximates ambient beat music, with an experimental and even “outer space” vibe.  Songs from my first two albums, “Knowledge & Compromise” and “Aubade Crowning” were featured as well.

Visit the show’s site: http://www.thepodcastproducers.com/

Aubade Crowning Album Cover

Aubade Crowning (2014)

“Fascinating release…Right from the get-go on “Endless Gardens”, track one, a variety of interesting beats and rhythms are thrown at the listener, along with a whimsical melody…a stew that mixes catchy melodic segments with funky (“Craft and Commonplace”) or offbeat percussive sounds (the Steve Reich-ian “Orchestra of Blocks”), and even some tabla-type sounds (“The Lives of Artists”)”.

-MAKE YOUR OWN TASTE Review

“Aubade Crowning” is the second full length album by Anthony Weis.  Many influences are touched upon, from African drumming to Japanese Shamisen, to Avant Garde experimentation to rock.

Open in Spotify:  Anthony Weis – Aubade Crowning

Release Date:  June 24, 2014  //  Credits:  Written/Recorded/Mixed/Mastered by Anthony Weis  //  (c) 2014 Anthony Weis. All rights reserved.

Knowledge & Compromise (2013)

 This debut album comprises of a collection of pieces done for various projects/films during 2012.

Release Date:  February 18, 2013  //  Credits:  Written/Recorded/Mixed/Mastered by Anthony Weis  //  (c) 2013 Anthony Weis. All rights reserved.

Frank Zappa Live

The Complete Listener’s Guide: Frank Zappa 101

Frank Zappa’s discography is one of the most intimidating and potentially misrepresentative of any back catalogue out there.  With over 62 releases during his lifetime and another 32+ posthumous records, it can be hard to know just where to start.  Adding to that the many different styles he worked in makes getting a representative sample of the man’s work nearly impossible for first timers.

The goal behind this “Complete Listener’s Guide” is to provide an overview of Zappa’s musical progression as well as to give a plan of attack at diving into this massive body of work.

Frank’s career can be divided into the following five periods:  Early Satire Rock (1966 – 1968), Innovative Instrumentals (1969 – 1972), Progressive Rock Songs (1973 – 1976), Return to Satire Rock, Late 70s and Beyond (1978+), & Return to Innovative Instrumentals, Late 70s and Beyond (1978+).  It’s my opinion that very few Zappa releases post 1980 are worth listening to more than once all the way through, but this doesn’t mean he still didn’t put out great songs.

Let’s get started into breaking down each era.  For a guide on where to start, skip to right to the bottom of this post.

Early Satire Rock (1966 – 1968)

Important Albums:  Freak Out!, Absolutely Free, Lumpy Gravy, & We’re Only in It for the Money

Despite some of Frank’s mid-1970’s joke songs, these early albums may be the most detrimental to his lasting legacy as a great musician and brilliant composer.  Don’t get me wrong, these are very important and influential releases and many Zappa fans love these early “classics” naming Freak Out! and We’re Only in It for the Money as among his finest records.  However, these songs can’t help but sound extremely dated and a bit annoying after repeated listens.

The social satire of these releases are not only something I agree completely with, but funny too.  However, the songs pale greatly in comparison to his later work.  The best albums of the bunch are oddly enough his most forgotten, including Lumpy Gravy and Absolutely Free.

Lumpy Gravy is a great experimental mash-up record of Frank’s early movie scores, themes, and skits all of which flow seamlessly together.  The record was actually his debut solo album and consists of just two 15 minute tracks.  A recommended early album, but definitely not the place to start in his catalogue.

Absolutely Free is the first album where we get a taste of the amazingly unique guitar playing that would dominate Zappa’s later recordings.  “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” is the perfect example of this.  As for satire, this disc contains some of the best: “Call Any Vegetable”, “Status Back Baby”, “Big Legged Emma”, and “Son of Suzy Cream Cheese”.  AF is my choice for the best early Zappa record.

Best Album: Absolutely Free

Recommended Songs:  “Trouble Every Day”, “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin”, “Big Legged Emma”, “Flower Punk”, & “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”.

Innovative Instrumentals (1969 – 1972)

Important Albums: Uncle Meat, Hot Rats, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Chunga’s Revenge, & The Grand Wazoo

The late 60s/early 70s was quite a transitional time for Frank.  Not only was he starting to emerge as a serious composer and one of the world’s best guitar players, but he began to improve his sonic palate as well, experimenting with things ranging from 8 track recording gear to get great drums sounds to interesting guitar effects to a wider range of musical instruments.  The result was nothing short of breathtaking.

The crown jewel of this synthesis is Hot Rats, an album credited with creating Jazz/Rock Fusion but definitely veering to the rock side of that equation.  The lead track, “Peaches en Regalia,” is arguably his best composition blending various rhythms, melodies, and guitar parts all into one seamless piece of music.  Some of his best grooves and solos can be heard on “Willie the Pimp,” “Son of Mr. Green Jeans,” and “The Gumbo Variations.”  The disc rounds itself out with too more great progressive jazz pieces.  For those fans wishing to jump straight into his instrumental work, start here.

Burnt Weeny Sandwich and The Grand Wazoo are two other notable records from this period, and although they are not as tight as Hot Rats from start to finish, they provide us with even more great music and sounds.  “Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich” and “Holiday in Berlin, Full-Blown” off Burnt Weeny Sandwich and “The Grand Wazoo” and “Eat That Question” off of The Grand Wazoo are probably the tracks to start with.

Other notable releases from this period are the eclectic Uncle Meat, the hit or miss Waka/Jawaka, and Chunga’s Revenge which surprisingly contains some of his finer work.

The years of 1969 to 1972 may be Zappa’s peak, although the years that directly follow may surpass this effort.  If you are a fan of progressive instrumentals, interesting instrumentations, and great jamming, this is the place to start.

Best Album: Hot Rats

Recommended Songs: “Peaches en Regalia”, “Son of Mr. Green Genes”, “Holiday in Berlin, Full-Blown”, “The Orange County Lumber Truck”, “Transylvania Boogie”, “Twenty Small Cigars”, “It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal”, & “The Grand Wazoo”

Progressive Rock Songs (1973 – 1976)

Important Albums: Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe (‘), One Size Fits All, Roxy & Elsewhere, Bongo Fury, & Zoot Allures

In many ways, Frank Zappa invented a new genre with the release of Over-Nite Sensation.  His melding of various influences and genres into these warped rock songs still sound alien today.  The amount of musical “information” that is packed into these songs is revolutionary.  The cuts break down and shift momentum at the drop of a dime.  No bar of music is wasted.  “Zomby Woof” is a perfect example of this.  Various jazzy, almost atonal fills break up the groove provided by fuzz guitars and horns, while the drums stop and go at a near perfect pace.  Frank also steps up his guitar playing breaking out amazing solos on pretty much every cut.  Start your journey with this album if you’re a fan of progressive music in a more traditional rock setting.

Apostrophe (‘), released shortly after Over-Nite, may be the single best introduction to Zappa there is in one disc.  It’s got jamming and solos (“Cosmik Debris” & “Apostrophe'”), well crafted songs (“Uncle Remus”), and boundry pushing music (“St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” & “Father O’Blivion”)…just listen to the drums on “St. Alfonzo’s”, who else was playing like that in the 70’s?

One Size Fits All was actually voted fan favorite on a Zappa tribute website.  The poll was set up as a 64 album March Madness style bracket with albums facing off head to head and then moving on.  It’s not hard to see why: “Inca Roads” may have one of the most inventive guitar solos of all time, and the genre sifting “Andy” and unqiue rocker “San Ber’dino” may be two of his top rock songs of all time.  The blending of rock, soul, and jazz on “Andy” is hard to top.

Bongo Fury and Zoot Allures are also worth checking out if the previously mentioned albums interest you.  “Black Napkins” off of Zoot is one of his better know instrumentals.

Best Album: Apostrophe (‘)

Best Songs: “Camarillo Brillo”, “Dirty Love”, “Zomby Woof”, “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Momma”, “Apostrophe'”, “Uncle Remus”, “Andy” “San Ber’dino”, & “Black Napkins”.

Return to Satire Rock, Late 70s and Beyond (1978+)

Important Albums:  Joe’s Garage Acts I-III, Sheik Yerbouti, Tinseltown Rebellion, Your Are What You Is, Ship Arriving to Late to Save a Drowning Witch, & Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention

Zappa in the 1980s and beyond is a very hit or miss affair, with his “satire rock” being more spotty than ever.  It’s great to see him attempting new things, like the talking/singing found on Ship Arriving to Late to Save a Drowning Witch or the combining of live musicians with his Synclavier compositions, but ultimately this all pales in comparison to his better work.  Also, like most musicians of the time, the stark, lifeless production decisions of the 80s made a lot of that work sound very dated, very quickly.  Gone are the thumping bass parts, warm drumming, and rich violin solos, instead replaced with programmed lead parts, thin drumming, and less dynamic variation in instrumentation.

All this is not to suggest that his later work is completely useless, but you must wade through a lot of filler.  His abundance of material coupled with a lack of editing lead to many albums with a few good tracks.  He released 5 albums in 1979 and another 5 in 1981!

Regardless, Sheik Yerbouti is the finest late-era Zappa rock album, featuring a generous and eclectic 18 song set.  All the elements are there: deadly sharp whit, great guitar solos, interesting instrumentals, and great song writing.  This is the recommended starting place to get into this period of his work.  “Flakes”, “Jones Crusher”, “Rat Tomago”, and “City of Tiny Lights” are all worthwhile listens.

Beyond that album, and possibly Them or Us, the rest of the good stuff comes in on a song-by-song basis.  Joe’s Garage features the title track of the same name and “Catholic Girls”, Tinseltown Rebellion‘s title track and “Doreen” off Them or Us are probably the best of the rest.  Overall, this is easily his weakest period.

Best Album:  Sheik Yerbouti

Best Songs:  “Joe’s Garage”, “Catholic Girls”, “Flakes”, “City of Tiny Lights”, “Porn Wars”, “Doreen”, & “Tinseltown Rebellion”.

Return to Innovative Instrumentals, Late 70s and Beyond (1978+)

Important Albums: Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, Shut Up ‘n Play Your Guitar, Jazz from Hell, & Civilization Phase III

At this point, things get a bit harder to classify, mainly because the great instrumental tracks are spread out and integrated into records with a lot of more vocal dominated numbers.  For instance, the great “Watermelon in Easter Hay” showcasing a rare major scale solo is on Joe’s Garage and “What’s New in Baltimore”, probably the best synthesis of the Synclavier and his guitar soloing, is wasted on the below average Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention.

Sleep Dirt and Studio Tan do concentrate the innovative instrumentals on the other hand, and if they had been combined into one album as originally planned via the Lather Box Sex, we might of had another Hot Rats on our hands.  “RDNZL”, “Revised Music for a Guitar and Low-Budget Orchestra”, “Regyptian Strut”, and “The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution” would have combined to make a great record.

Jazz From Hell is another worthy full album effort.  “G-Spot Tornado” still sounds fresh and exciting today and did what Battles is currently doing a full two decades earlier.  “St. Etienne” is just another entry in the vast collection that is great Zappa guitar solos.  Speaking of solos, Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar is chalked full of them, but I actually prefer them in context, rather than extracted like they are presented there.

Best Album: Jazz From Hell

Best Songs: “Watermelon in Easter Hay”, “What’s New In Baltimore”, “Revised Music for a Guitar and Low-Budget Orchestra”, “G-Stop Tornado”, & “The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution”.

Frank Zappa Listening Guide

Here’s a recommended listening list on getting started into Zappa’s vast catalogue:

  1. Apostrophe (‘) – The best one disc entry point to his work, containing much of what he does best.
  2. Over-Nite Sensation – The single best representation of his warped rock songs chalked full of amazing compositional and arranging skills and great rock grooves.
  3. Hot Rats – His single best instrumental album and the finest Jazz/Rock Fusion album of all time.
  4. Burnt Weeny Sandwich OR The Grand Wazoo – Two worthy discs to get a deeper look into his great instrumental work.
  5. Roxy & Elsewhere – A great showcase of what a live performance would have been like.
  6. One Size Fits All – Voted as the fan favorite album, full of classic Zappa tracks and moments.
  7. Joe’s Garage Acts I-III OR Sheik Yerbouti – Better than average late-era rock songs.
  8. Freak Out! OR Absolutely Free – A look at his whip sharp whit cutting through the Hippie/Flower Power rhetoric.
  9. Studio Tan – Skip the first 20+ minute track and check out his late era instrumentals.

After wading through what you like, dive deeper into that era using the guide above.  Happy listening.

 

*Image from Wiki Commons