It’s been more than 20 years since Dweezil Zappa made a solo record this good, and almost as long since he cut one exceptional (Shampoohorn) and one troubled (Music For Pets) album with the band Z, featuring his brother Ahmet. In the years since he’s dashed off some solo records that had moments of excitement but which never really lived up to the promise he’d shown on his earliest recordings of the mighty Confessions album, a record that was released before Nirvana bludgeoned the music industry with their particular brand of teenage power.
Zappa has done some growing up since then and become a more focused and confident player. Some of that may rest on his having led the Zappa Plays Zappa band (which has issued some fine recorded output) for long stretches of time during which he found himself refining his approach to guitar and delivering the goods on his father’s music night after night. There’s hints of Zappa The Elder on this release, as one might suspect, but there’s also plenty of classic Dweezil (the humor, the appreciation of both “serious” music and ephemeral pop) and both coexist comfortably and without serving up disappointment.
The opening “Funky 15” is a focused and adventurous instrumental, one that blends elements of the high orchestral and the sheer power of a rock band. It tends toward the dreamy with whole tone runs, beautifully sustained notes and melodic information that soars with the imagination. It’s as much 2015 as it is 1975, the peak era of the fusion rock to which it clearly owes a debt. But neither it nor the other material here is retro: Zappa is not reaching back for anything as much as he’s reaching forward into something he can now clearly see in his mind’s eye but has not yet full achieved although there, on “Funky 15”, as so often on this record, he surpasses our expectations.
He’s always been a convincing orchestrator of guitars and other instruments, and even if he took some time to fully step into his voice he’s had vision from the very start. That vision and those skills are evident on material such as “Nothing”, which might have made a convincing Z track, “Hummin”, and “Jaws of Life”. The weird rhythms and unexpected harmonic twists and turns are all here, as Zappa’s ability to construct unapologetically beautiful pieces, as in the case of “Truth”, a contemplative ballad that asks us to imagine a George Harrison prayer as composed and performed on the ocean floor or some other corner of the world where humans can turn off the haste and frustration long enough to just be. The solo that appears at 3:40 in this tune is the best thing DZ has recorded to this point.
Zappa’s singular vision remains intact, of course, as evidenced by “Malkovich” featuring none other than John Malkovich reading portions of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” over musical settings that convince you that this particular collaboration was and had to be written in the stars. The other major collaborator here is Zappa’s father. The one and only piece they ever collaborated on, “Dragon Master”, is presented in all its lustful, heavy metal glory.
No, Dweezil Zappa hasn’t finally conformed to what the world thinks is a great rock ‘n’ roll record, but he’s come back to making a great Dweezil record. In the end the difference between the two is only a matter of taste.