Reviews

Sweet Mercy: 'An Evening with Frank Zappa, The Torture Never Stops'

There has never been a rock artist like Zappa. Who else could combine Spike Jones and Stravinsky? Who else saw themselves as both Monty Python and Duke Ellington?


Frank Zappa

An Evening with Frank Zappa, The Torture Never Stops

Label: Eagle Rock
US Release Date: 2010-11-16
UK Release Date: 2010-11-22
Amazon
iTunes

There are plenty of misconceptions about musician Frank Zappa, and there was a Frank Zappa persona to match every one of them. Some saw him as the acerbic critic of those who wanted to censor rock music through labeling. Some know him as a serious classical composer. Plenty of others think of “Don’t Eat Yellow Snow” or “Valley Girl”—a rocking composer of novelty songs.

All of that’s a little bit true. But for the bulk of his career, Zappa was something rarer and more useful: the leader of a rock band that was dead serious and utterly witty at the same time. Now that is unusual. So much rock, including the good stuff, is an overserious snooze. Ever see Led Zeppelin crack a joke? Please.

But Frank Zappa turned his rock bands into both orchestras capable of expressing complex and precise music and satirical troupes whose players became parts in a Zappa circus of parody and biting wit. There has never been a rock artist like Zappa. Who else could combine Spike Jones and Stravinsky? Who else saw themselves as both Monty Python and Duke Ellington?

The Torture Never Stops is the DVD release of the full 1981 Halloween concert by Zappa’s band at New York’s Palladium Theater. Zappa had the concert filmed, and portions of it aired previously on MTV. The full concert, however, is a remarkable experience. This is the crack band of crack bands—a rock orchestra that is utterly nimble and fluid, all while still having the time of their lives. In addition to the leader singing many of the tunes and also playing guitar solos (when he is not conducting the whole thing with a legitimate orchestral baton), the band includes: Ray White (soul vocals and guitar), Steve Vai (guitar), Chad Wackerman (drums), Tommy Mars (vocals and keyboards), Bobby Martin (keys, tenor sax, vocals), Scott Thunes (bass, vocals), and Ed Mann (percussion and vocals). And simply put, these guys could play just about anything . . . and Zappa asked them to do just that.

From the time the proceedings kick off with “Black Napkins” until the concert is nearly over, Zappa moves his band from tune to tune in clean and precise segues. The effect is dazzling. The band is precise but never fussy, with complex rhythms, turn-on-a-dime shifts of feeling, layered harmonies in many styles, and dizzying patterns for the musicians to rip off as if they were nothing. The classic “Montana”, for example, is rich in laughs because of its tale of a dental floss farmer, but it also is flush with luminous chords, zinging vocal harmonies, and super-fast fusion lines played with precision by Vai, Wackerman, Mars and Mann. Just as you are getting over a particularly stunning passage, the band has moved onto a new tempo or song or mood.

Listeners with only passing acquaintance with the most obvious of Zappa’s music may wonder what other music it is comparable to. But there is not a single other artist in rock who operates with the sonic complexity of Steely Dan, the cartoonish bite of Spinal Tap, and the intense seriousness of organic chemistry. “Harder Than Your Husband” is mock-country music, while “Bamboozled by Love” is a strange blues running over an unusual time signature, and “We’re Turning Again” has the heart of a sappy middle-of-the-road tune but completely satirical lyrics sending up dozens of rock stars (“They were mellow, they were yellow, they were wearing smelly blankets, they were Donovan fans”). Then how about “Alien Orifice”, an instrumental tune that sounds like the smartest jazz fusion tune you’ve ever heard, with sudden shifts in sonority and rhythm that dazzle. That these four wildly divergent songs are played back-to-back-to-back-to-back without any stopping gives you a sense of this concert.

A big part of the fun of The Torture Never Stops is hearing such a wide array of styles, all played for remarkable fun. A half-dozen band members get to sing, usually very very well but with not a trace of over-sincerity, and every player gets to be a virtuoso. Still, the great playing here is never sterile, with even a talent like Steve Vai not feeling like this is band that allows you to show off. The real star is always going to be whatever song the band is playing: as a composer Zappa was utterly and finally one of a kind.

Frank Zappa, of course, is not for everyone. Though he is an amazing guitar player, he coats his sound during this concert in a strange kind of processing. And while the songs are undeniably clever and tricky, they trade in certain gimmicks that can be frilly or too cute. Zappa’s lyrics are funny and satirical but they also jab in the direction of some pretty obvious targets. And the baroque flourishes, done perhaps as a percussive line harmonized between marimba, electric guitar, and synthesizer, are a classic Zappa motif that I’ve grown to expect.

I hope that Zappa’s music gets a bigger audience over time. Between raging against the Parents Music Resource Center and naming his kids Dweezil and Moon Unit, this amazing musician became more famous for a few outlandish moments in his life rather than his life’s work. The Torture Never Stops is a record of one very fine Zappa band playing much of his most accessible and ingenious music. People might know that he composed and was widely influenced by some rather modern classic music or that, early on, he was a kind of proto-punk. But the bulk of Frank Zappa’s work—and a great and wide bulk it is—sits in a unique space where an acerbic wit could meet up with rock music that was unusually rich in melody and complexity.

There was and probably will never be another musician quite like Frank Zappa. Here he is, great as he could be, on one generous night.

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image