Jazz From Hell

Frank Zappa

Rykodisc, 1986


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


By late 1986, Frank Zappa seemed to have shed the last vestige of being considered a rock musician. Turning almost exclusively to his Synclavier, he created Jazz From Hell, an all-instrumental collection of tracks ranging from Stockhausen influences to performances bordering on rock music. But if this disc proved anything, it showed that Zappa needed a live band behind him desparately, if only to provide the music with a hint of humanity.

The album opens up well enough with "Night School," a track that almost sounds like something that could have come from the mind of Mike Post, and would have fit in well as the opening music for some television cop show. (That's not meant as an insult, by the way.) "Night School" is an exciting piece of music, if not a little too electronic, but has enough power and craftsmanship to make the listener believe that this Synclavier experiment could actually work.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Likewise, "G-Spot Tornado" later on is a flurry of excitement, though this one shows a few clinks in the armor, as live musicians (especially maybe recruiting someone like L. Shankar for the main riff) could have made this piece come alive. Still, this version is exciting enough to keep the listener coming back to it for more and more.

If only the rest of Jaz From Hell had the same lofty aspirations. Tracks like "The Beltway Bandits" and "While You Were Art II" are soulless, meandering numbers that make it seem like Zappa is trying to re-create past glories, say from the Uncle Meat-period of his career, but with little success. While one could argue that these numbers fit in with a lot of the pseudo-classical work Zappa had been producing around that time, it doesn't make them any more interesting to listen to. Likewise, the one instance of any type of vocals, on "Massaggio Galore," sounds incredibly out of place and should have been left on the digital cutting room floor.

The only performance by live musicians, "St. Etienne," is proof positive of why Zappa needed actual bodies behind him playing his music. Not surprisingly, it is the only natural-sounding track on the disc, but it is also the only one that really sees Zappa come to life. I don't believe I've ever heard a finer guitar solo from Zappa than on this track - and if Zappa truly was bored with rock music, then no one ever made being bored sound so beautiful.

Jazz From Hell is not the kind of disc that one can fully appreciate on a cursory listen, but even the most stalwart fans of Zappa have to admit that, while there are some great performances on this disc, Zappa as the electronic mastermind is not nearly as interesting as Zappa the bandleader.

2005 Christopher Thelen and "The Daily Vault." All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of the Zappa Family Trust / record label, and is used for informational purposes only.

Rating: C+

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© 2005 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rykodisc, and is used for informational purposes only.