It is a fitting Frank Zappa irony that I am reviewing his latest posthumous release, ‘Halloween’. My first experience with Zappa’s music was the discovery that ‘Freak Out!’ made a perfect soundtrack for the Halloween haunted house I created in my suburban basement in 1967. It scared the bejesus out of my young neighborhood victims. Thirty-six years later, we’re treated to “the Big One”, a live recording compendium from a series of shows Zappa and his band performed around Halloween in 1978. And, as you’ll hear, Frank Zappa on Halloween “is like Guy Lombardo on New Years”.
In his thirty-year career, Frank Zappa made over seventy albums. His music was always adventurous, combining elements of rock, doowop, jazz, and classical, not to mention the theater of the absurd. A wicked satirist with a wit as stinging as his guitar tone, he produced music that was both cerebral and hysterical.
Here’s a recipe for musical disaster: mix a “rocking teenage combo” with two guitarists, two bass players, two keyboards, two drummers together, record them live, add in Halloween, spiced with a New York City audience. The result is pure Zappa.
‘Halloween’ is actually an amalgamation of several shows, brilliantly edited together into a single flowing show. The fidelity is quite good, considering the complexities of the band, challenges of recording live and the technology of the time. Zappa’s voice and guitar work come though clearly, even in the most chaotic moments. In many sections you can hear the sound of the guitar echoing off the rear wall behind you (whether captured by mics or digitally generated, it is quite evocative of the real thing).
The first track, ‘NYC Audience’ immediately immerses you in the performance space. The crowd envelopes you, as the band tunes and warms up. While the listener is clearly in the audience, the synth is amorphously floating above and behind, the guitar placed strong in front, echoing behind, with drums panned across the front.
‘Ancient Armaments’, an instrumental, starts things off with Zappa once again showing why he really must be the number-one under-rated guitarist. Any doubts are vanquished by the time the disc wraps up with the ‘Black Napkins (The Deathless Horsie)’. Frank Zappa played some big guitar and he fortunately gets the big guitar sound treatment in spades on this disc.
The surrounds are creatively used on ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow’ with a flanged white noise whoosh panned around the surrounds accenting the frozen wind blowing across the frozen tundra.
By far the most interesting aspect of the release for 5.1 aficionados is the treatment of the drum solo in ‘Zeets’. Apparently Dweezil and Joe decided to have a little fun, Frank Zappa style, with drummer extraordinaire Vinnie Colaiuta’s percussive extravaganza. “Face it, for most people, drum solos are boring”, Dweezil told us at Surround Pro 2002, and certainly the track starts out innocently enough but it soon, in the words of Dweezil as quoted by ‘Surround Professional’ in an interview with Steve Harvey, “…becomes a little more tweezed as it goes on. It definitely breaks out into psycho-panning mode”.
No doubt Frank Zappa would have gone further with the pyrotechnic panning, but most of the disc preserves a more traditional “photographic” approach, letting the music provide the fireworks. And Zappa’s fretwork on songs like ‘Easy Meat’ and ‘Black Napkins’ is jaw dropping. Check out the juicy fat guitar tone he squeezes out on ‘Stink-Foot’. Amazing stuff.
Throughout the disc Zappa is having fun with the audience, pulling members on stage to participate in theatrical bits in songs like ‘Dinah-Moe Hum’, and he can be heard bantering with the crowd eager for autographs and abuse.
Running about seventy minutes, the songs flow together nicely, a tribute to the technical chops, patience and obvious love for the music exhibited by the production team. Tragically I found one of my playback machines (a Toshiba SD-4700) inserted a short mute when changing tracks. Since the songs are all edited together, the mute constantly destroys the “you are there feeling” which the recording does such an exemplary job of providing.
The easy way around this extreme annoyance is to select the DTS tracks. This may be a the best choice for many listeners who do not have full time alignment and/or bass management capabilities in their 5.1 MLP playback setups. Potential fidelity differences between the MLP track and the DTS alternative are minor as the original material is not that pristine (although the disc sounds superb for a live recording circa 1978).
Homage must be paid to DTS for “doing it right”. Demonstrating deep respect for the music, they have once again gone the extra mile to retain artistic integrity. Too often the label simply hires an engineer to create the 5.1 remix and we are left wondering how the results would be received by the original artist. Alarmingly, labels sometimes release new versions without artistic input or consent. These can be decidedly substandard (the first 5.1 release of ‘Ah Via Musicom’ – see review – by Eric Johnson comes to mind).
DTS, tragically unable to raise Frank Zappa from the grave, did the next best thing. They hired long time Zappa engineer Joe Chiccarelli to mix the high resolution release. Chiccarelli, an exceptionally talented engineer and pioneer of 5.1 mixing techniques, recorded the original tracks in 1978 (his first live recording gig!). DTS also engaged Frank’s son Dweezil Zappa (an awesome guitarist in his own right) as producer for the project. Fittingly, Capitol engineers Steve Genewick and Bill Smith worked with Chiccarelli on the project as well. Kudos to everyone involved in the project.
The disc includes insightful liner notes from Carl Baugher (in both the printed booklet and on-screen as well as an exhaustive treatment of ‘The Official Frank Zappa Biography’, a libretto (which even includes some of the audience involvement), a discography (all seventy-one releases!), a humorous radio interview and two videos. The fidelity of the videos (‘Dancin’ Fool’ from a ‘Saturday Night Live’ performance and a live video of ‘Suicide Chump’) are poor, but watching Frank Zappa and the band helps one to visualize the concert performance.
I am confident that between Zappa’s son and his long time recording engineer we are delivered a disc that captures the flavor of what Frank would do if he were still alive. Likely it would have been significantly more aggressive. Perhaps we’ll get a better idea in the future; Frank Zappa himself did quad mixes of ‘Overnite Sensation’ and ‘Apostrophe’ – with luck, we will be treated with those soon and once again be reminded just how far ahead of the curve Frank Zappa always was…