A few years after he was awarded a Grammy for his instrumental album Jazz from Hell, Frank Zappa explained how his synclavier computer program worked while being interviewed by a morning news program. When the anchor inquired if the musical technology being used was threatening to overtake the human element of the music, Zappa dismissively said that his new way of composing and recording did away with human error. In other words, musical accuracy was very important to Zappa. He was famously discouraged with the outcome of recording sessions with the London Symphony Orchestra in the early ‘80s when the esteemed organization failed to prepare themselves for the rigors that Frank Zappa’s complicated scores brought.
By 1984, this very unique voice in rock who was now stretching out to the worlds of chamber and symphonic classical music was learning how to make things work in his favor on the flip side of Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger. From this point forward, the synclavier and its corresponding software were just as much a driving creative force in Zappa’s music than any other tool. It dominated releases such as Francesco Zappa, the aforementioned Jazz from Hell (save for one tracks), and the posthumously released mammoth double album Civilization Phaze III. Dance Me This, Zappa’s 100th release, clings to the musical purity that Zappa strived for through his technology. This could be why the album sat around for more than twenty years after his death; to free itself from context. Dance Me This occupies is a dimension where you don’t analysis whether or not rock music “rocks” or if jazz really “swings”. There are no buzzwords to get in the way, no attitude or swagger. It’s music all the way down.
If you need context, here are the basics: Frank Zappa programmed his synclavier with the assistance of Todd Yvega. Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil Zappa had left his guitar rig set up inside his father’s studio, prompting the elder Zappa to lay down his last known recorded guitar performance. Three throat singers from the Republic of Tuva were on tour and stopped by for a visit. Zappa and Yvega had Anatolii Kuular, Kaigl-Ool Khovalyg, and Kongar-Ool Ondar lay their unique vocal style on top of the music. Completed in 1993 and released in 2015, Dance Me This is a modern smorgasbord of sounds that somehow doesn’t turn the page to navel noodling. What initially comes across as chaotic will eventually reveal an impressive overall arc. It is wild and coherent—you know, a Frank Zappa album.
When discussing the content of Dance Me This, you have to dive into an area of the album where guitars and throat singers are absent. This is the musique concrète-esque suite “Wolf Harbor”, whose five movements take up just a little more than half the album’s length. This collection of sampled sounds may not be, at its core, an electro-acoustic work, but it certainly behaves like one. Dripping water, humidity-soaked sirens, metal clangs, intricately delivered percussion, castanets, and ghostly high-pitched tones prove to be as hypnotic a combination as the best ambient music on the market. The title “Wolf Harbor” feels appropriate, though it’s difficult to pinpoint why.
The strange suite is book-ended by compositions that carry Zappa’s unique sense of sophistication but still manage to leave an imprint on your mind. The title track begins the album like it were a slowed-down and tonally reverent version of Jazz From Hell. For “Pachuco Gavotte”, the dance becomes harder to pin down as keyboard and percussion are seemingly at odds with one another. The Republic of Tuva trio announce the album’s second half as “Wolf Harbor V” seamlessly hands the baton to “Goat Polo”. “Goat Polo”‘s ever-modulating melody gives the listener a sense of temporary confusion, a feeling that is confirmed when “Rykoniki”‘s stranger yet more reliable melody arrives. The sand blows away for “Piano”, seven minutes of the track’s namesake running through a dizzying series of leap-frogging arpeggios. This may not be the moment that Dance Me This was leading up to, but the track carries a certain weight that would never cause it to be confused for falling action. You can’t say that for closing track “Calculus” either, as “Piano” gently drops the album to the ground so that it can sprint to the finish line. The throat singing keeps pace with the tempo’s tricky ebb-and-flow as the jazz/rock fusion in the background quietly gains momentum. When it’s done, the listener can look forward to that inner debate where one side of the brain asks “What the hell was that, exactly?” while the other sides says “That was kinda cool, let’s hear it again!”
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