Frank Zappa, Hot Rats

Frank Zappa, Hot Rats

June 9, in Features, Titles

In many ways, Frank Zappa was an enigma. Somewhat clown-like in his personal presentation, this persona masked a kind of creative genius that—to the detriment of Zappa’s fame and, probably, financial success—refused to bend to the strictures of popularity. He just wasn’t a middle-of-the-road kind of guy…his music was usually challenging, not surprising from the man who, as a boy, chose the avant-garde classical composer Edgard Varèse as his favorite.

Entitling albums Hot Rats and Weasels Ripped My Flesh (among others) was not a move calculated to ensnare the masses. Nor was naming songs “Willie the Pimp” or “I Am the Slime”. (At least you can’t accuse Zappa of inconsistency: Naming your kids Dweezil, Moon Unit and so on evidenced a certain follow-through.) It is perhaps Zappa’s unwillingness to compromise (he might call it “refusal to self-censor) that led to Hot Rats only charting at 173 in the US, but at 9 in the UK, following its October 1969 release on the Barking Pumpkin Records label.

Hot Rats was Zappa’s second solo album, and his first following the dissolution of The Mothers of Invention, and it arrived in the midst of an incredibly fecund period of releases for Zappa…something like 13 albums over a five year period. The LP was notable in that Zappa used, for the first time, 16-track equipment…something that was cutting edge at the time. The layering of overdubs gives the album much of its sophisticated, multi-level acoustic feel. Hot Rats was composed, arranged and produced by Zappa. He was joined by a relatively tight group of accomplished musicians including, on one track, Jean-Luc Ponty.

You can call Hot Rats a rock album, but it isn’t one in any traditional late-sixties early-seventies sense. There is a strong infusion of jazz as well as classical overtones that make the LP difficult to categorize. It wasn’t quite like Zappa’s earlier work. For one thing, with one exception all six cuts on the LP are instrumentals (and the sole vocal, on “Willie the Pimp”, is by Captain Beefheart).

The album’s lead-off cut, “Peaches en Regalia”, is the LP’s most accessible track, and a beautiful piece of music: A flowing piece of jazz fusion that ends all to soon, it is echoed—at least in style—by “Little Umbrellas”, which leads off the second side of the album. “Peaches” is followed by the album’s only vocal track, “Willie the Pimp” featuring Captain Beefheart in a blessedly attenuated vocal. The real stars of this song are Zappa’s extended guitar solos (jams, really). Stylistically, I put this song in the mold of “The Gumbo Variations” which has also a “jamming” feel to it and benefits from multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood’s standout saxophone solo.

“Son of Mr. Green Genes” reverts to instrumentals, but with more of a rocking (rather than jazz) feel, featuring more lyrical guitar work. The LP winds up with the heavily produced “It Must Be a Camel”, featuring the electric violin of Jean-Luc Ponty.

I was a little too young to have owned a sealed original pressing of this title, so I can’t compare this Classic Records reissue to it. What I can say, however, is that the sound that leaps off this slab of vinyl is astonishing. At a number of points (particularly in “Peaches en Regalia” and “Willie the Pimp”, I jumped out of my chair at the realism of instrumental entries. The sound is ideally balanced: Lower frequencies are tight, not muddy, and the higher frequencies are
airy and unaccentuated. Bernie Grundman did an excellent job of mastering this LP and I’d be surprised if the OP
sounded better.

The LP is pressed on Classic’s 200g Quiex SV-P vinyl, and is enclosed in a gatefold sleeve with full-color graphics (in turn enclosed in a Mylar outer sleeve). The vinyl is contained in a plastic-lined paper inner sleeve; there is also enclosed a printed paper inner sleeve with what may be some period graphics on one side. On the other are some thoughts from Bernie Grundman about the mastering process and, more specifically, about mastering this LP. There’s also a word about Bernie Grundman from Gail, Zappa’s widow: “Ears!” The vinyl itself features the period-correct

Barking Pumpkin label. My LP of Hot Rats was pressed the right way: Flat and flawless. No pops, tics or other wayward surface noises. It’s what you should expect: A premium product for a premium price.

This is sophisticated, structured music, very close to classical in its structure and complexity. Despite having been released 40 years ago, this music is still fresh; it is deservedly long lived. Hot Rats is well worth owning.

System Used for Review

  • Speakers: Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3.1
  • Turntables: Modified Acoustic Research XA Turntable with Linn Basik LV X Tonearm, Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO III Cartridge and Linn Valhalla Power Supply
  • Linn Sondek LP-12 with Ittok LVIII Tonearm, Grado Reference Sonata Cartridge, Hercules II Power Supply, Cetech Carbon Fiber Subchassis and Armboard and Herbie’s Way Excellent II Turntable Mat
  • Digital Sources: Yamaha DV-S5860 SACD/DVD-A/CD Player
  • Toshiba SD-3950 DVD player with Vinnie Rossi mods
  • Apple iPod Classic, 160 gb
  • Amplification: Yamaha MX-D1 Stereo Power Amplifier
  • Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3 Subwoofer Amplifier
  • Pre-Amplification: McIntosh C712
  • Cables: Mapleshade Speaker Wire, Blue Jeans Cable, AudioQuest, ProSolutions and AR interconnects
  • LPs reviewed were sealed, and prior to playing were cleaned with LAST Power Cleaner.

from affordableaudio,  Peter D’Amario

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