FRANK ZAPPA: QUAUDIOPHILIAC

(BARKING PUMPKIN RECORDS/ZAPPA FAMILY TRUST/DTS ENTERTAINMENT; Audio DVD, 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

To say that Frank Zappa was ahead of the musical curve – WAY ahead of the curve! – is, quite possibly, the understatement of this very young millennium. Recently, FZ’s eldest male offspring (the one titled “Dweezil”) discovered an old tape box, dated March 1, 1970, bearing his name (that would be “Dweezil.” We just went through this – in an earlier parenthetical aside – at the beginning of this impossibly rambling and circumlocutious sentence). The box contained a very early, unimaginably expansive recording of what would eventually become “Chunga’s Revenge,” recorded in an unto then unheard of separation/mix called “quadraphonic”; this recording, in fact, preceded the whole quadraphonic rage (“rage” may not be the best way to describe it, though… the process never really caught on with anyone other than audio geeks of the highest form) by several years and today’s hip new sound, Digital 5.1 Surround Sound by nearly three-and-a-half decades! That recording (in the guise of “Chunga Basement”) is now released in all of its four-channel glory, alongside nine other such experiments recorded by FZ and his various groups (Zappa, the Mothers, and… Dweezil, the proposed name of the new group with which Frank recorded this version of “Chunga… “). Dweezil (the son, not the band), after inquiring as to the existence of other like-minded recordings, has sequenced the ten tracks culled from the vaults of the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, not chronologically, but with an eye (an ear?) toward maximum listenability. So, how’d the kid do? Let’s examine, shall we?

Frank and Dweezil Zappa (uncredited photo)

QUAUDIOPHILIAC begins with two of Zappa’s orchestral pieces, the first (“Naval Aviation In Art?”) comes from the much-contested LATHER (an historic four-album set that was whittled up and edited into five separate albums – STUDIO TAN, SLEEP DIRT, the two-record set LIVE IN NEW YORK, and ORCHESTRAL FAVORITES, the latter being the place that this tune eventually saw release); the second is a re-worked, unreleased “Lumpy Gravy” from the same session that spawned the former. The two tracks combined clock in at a robust 2:39. The third track comes from the same source, but features – for the first time here – a signature FZ guitar solo. The previously unreleased “Rollo” is everything that made you fall in love with Zappa’s music (except without the pee-pee and fart jokes): Intriguing time-changes, adventurous arrangements, squiggly guitar leads. This, friends and neighbors, is truly the stuff of which FZ’s legend was made!

Aynsley Dunbar, Frank Zappa (uncredited photo)

A previously unheard version of “Watermelon In Easter Hay,” retitled “Drooling Midrange Accountants On Easter Hay” by Dweezil, is next. The new name comes from an FZ quote in which he discusses the record business in – as you can tell – his usual glowing terms; this spot-on diatribe is now edited over an alternate arrangement of the tune. The next two songs – SHEIK YERBOUTI’s “Wild Love” and SHUT UP ‘N’ PLAY YER GUITAR SOME MORE’s “Ship Ahoy” – feature several musicians who cut their teeth in Zappa’s late ’70s bands: bassists Roy Estrada and Patrick O’Hearn, guitarist Adrian Belew, vocalist Napolean Murphey Brock, and uber-percussionist Terry Bozzio. Though the songs are familiar, the four-channel mixes bring out the hidden intricacies inherent in all of FZ’s music. The much bally-hooed (just how much? Well, check out the first paragraph of this here critically-motivated piece) “Dweezil” tape rears its magnificent head next. Apparently, Dweezil would have been a kind of Mothers super-group in a standard four-piece rock setting: FZ on guitar (and, presumably, vocals), Ian Underwood on keyboards, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and Max Bennett on bass. As far as I know, Zappa’s reasons for retiring Dweezil after this single recording session has never been revealed. Obviously, Frank decided to reconvene the Mothers in a newer, harder-edged version and to maintain his steadily growing solo career, as well. “Chunga’s Basement,” now, is merely a glimpse of what could have been.

Frank Zappa (photo credit: FRANK LEONHARDT/ASSOCIATED PRESS IMAGES)

The next two tracks are the oldest of these recordings, aside form the Dweezil tape. An unreleased live recording from 1974, “Venusian Time Bandits,” features three more impressive Mothers: George Duke, Chester Thompson, and Tom Fowler. While FZ usually went large – as on the WAKA/JAWAKA title track which follows – it is in the stripped down arrangements for four-piece combos that his own virtuosity is featured in its best light; there is no doubt as to the genius he displayed as a composer, a conductor, an arranger, a band leader. The thing that these smaller groups shows is that Zappa was an unselfish (though demanding) player. He was more than willing to stand aside and allow his bandmates to shine, but was able to play rings around just about anybody you could name when he chose. “Waka/Jawaka” is a prime example of FZ standing aside, allowing his compositional and arranging skills to dictate how the other musicians move the music along. “Basement Music #2,” a piece culled from the soundtrack to the BABY SNAKES movie, finishes the set off in fine fashion. Chil’uns, if the newly discovered mixes don’t sell you on this one, then the unreleased stuff is surely enough to convince each of you to become a QUAUDIOPHILIAC! Dude, this just reminds me how much I miss FZ… hopefully there’s more to come.


RASPUTINA/DANIEL KNOX

(August 9, 2015; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)

The place to be.

Pretty much everybody has a bucket list. The bucket lists of people who write about music looks a whole lot different than other such lists; my list probably looks unlike anyone, anywhere, in any profession. Unfortunately, at least two-thirds of my list would require a time machine, so… what about that other third? Well, on a Sunday night in August, I was able to cross one item from my list: Rasputina live, with yours truly front and center. I have, occasionally, been disappointed after accomplishing something from my list; this one more than lived up to my expectations. The fact that the show took place at Saint Louis’ Old Rock House was a bonus.

Daniel Knox (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Daniel Knox (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

A second bonus was the opening act, Daniel Knox, a quirky, disheveled singer/songwriter with a pen tucked behind his left ear and a penchant for rummaging through a stack of crumpled notebook paper, looking for the lyrics to his next song. It wasn’t hard to keep track of how many songs Knox performed… you just had to follow the bouncing wads of paper. You see, as he finished one song, he would crumple the lyrics and drop the paper at his feet. Accompanying himself on electric piano and the occasional backing track or kazoo (on “You Win Some, You Tie Some”), Knox relied heavily on his new, eponymous third album, offering up the new single, “Blue Car,” a song about a near-deserted mall in his hometown (Springfield IL) called “White Oaks Mall” and a “song about my imaginary friend… my Mom wouldn’t allow him in her car, he wasn’t allowed in the house” called “David Carmichael.” Daniel’s odd, mumbling stream-of-unconsciousness intros were almost as good as the songs themselves. He introduced “Blue Car” as, “A song about time travel. I wrote it when I was ten… ten years from now.” The lyrics to another, called “Chasescene,” includes the macabre couplet “I love you in the ground/Your naked and cannot make a sound.” As stark and bleak as the studio versions tend to be, they take on a whole new creepiness with the minimal, solo approach, especially stuff like “Get To Know Your Neighbors” and “Ghostsong.” This performance was totally unexpected and very much the perfect table-setter for the headliners.

Rasputina (Melora Creager) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Melora Creager) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Melora Creager may forever be linked to Nirvana as the cellist on the European leg of their IN UTERO tour (the final tour, a couple of months before Kurdt shuffled himself off this mortal coil) but, to an ever-growing fan base, for the past twenty-some years, she is the musical and visual mastermind behind Rasputina. Creager’s backward-looking, forward-thinking music and fashion-sense glorifies the forgotten women and near-apocalyptic events of history, primarily highlighting the Victorian Age; her aesthetics have been a major contributor to the rise of the Steampunk phenomenon. And, of course, her music and Rasputina fill a big hole for people who miss the anything-goes quirkiness of the mid-to-late 1960s. A quick look around the room shows that the enigmatic three-piece reaches everyone from old hippies to young alt-rock punks, all of them rapturously soaking in the sounds of the past two centuries. Melora’s current bandmates – Carpella Parvo, who also plays cello, and Luis Mojica, who adds some well-placed keyboard elements and anachronistic beat-boxing – are equally important in bringing her vision to the stage. Covering a wide range of material (from 2002’s CABIN FEVER! to the recently released UNKNOWN, as well as some cool covers), Rasputina’s set was a slow-burn affair, relying more on lyrical emotion than musical crescendos, though there were enough intense moments and interaction between the players (especially Creager and Parvo) to keep the uninitiated (including me) involved and captivated by the show.

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Carpella Parvo) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Carpella Parvo) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The majority of the material came from the last three Rasputina releases, with four from 2010’s SISTER KINDERHOOK and three each from 2007’s OH PERILOUS WORLD (including the frigid set opener, “1816, the Year Without a Summer,” which name-checks Mary Shelley – the inclement weather forced her and her friends to stay indoors, where Shelley wrote FRANKENSTEIN, OR THE MODERN PROMETHEUS during the prolonged exile – among others) and UNKNOWN. A frantic Holocaust of Giants” kicked off a trio of …KINDERHOOK tunes, followed by an operaticSweet Sister Temperance” and “Humankind, As the Sailor,” which featured Mojica’s persistent Native American percussion to great effect. An oddly appealing cover of Goldfrapp’s “Clowns” put an end to the first portion of the recital.

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The three new songs made up the set’s middle section, with a tale of a famed lady-in-waiting in the Court of Queen Elizabeth, Bridget Manners,” “Indian Weed,” which allowed Melora and Carpella a bit of a break, with Luis looping the rhythm part of Creager’s cello, and a fever dream paean to Melora’s poltergeist called “Psychopathic Logic.” The latter led into a very cool take on Ray Davies’ “I Go To Sleep,” an early demo of which appeared on a “kitchen sink” compilation called GREAT AMERICAN GINGERBREAD. Other highlights of the evening – of which there were too many to tell you about – included the final SISTER KINDERHOOD number, the fragile “This, My Porcelain Life,” another historical piece called “Rats,” which recounts the time Bolivians asked the Pope to declare the vermin to be fish to alleviate starvation and featured a squalling, slide guitar-like solo from Melora and fan favorite, In Old Yellowcake,” which not only featured hauntingly visual lyrics about the vagaries of war but, rocks pretty hard, too, with a fairly awesome instrumental section with the cellos coming in with a rather dissonant sounding counterpoint before sliding into a nice harmony bit. And, of course, what Rasputina recitation would be complete without their brilliant take on Pink Floyd’s ode to broken friends, “Wish You Were Here?”

Rasputina (Carpella Parvo; Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Carpella Parvo; Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I will admit that this was an exceedingly different show than I usually go in for but, by the end of the night, I was taken by the sheer theatricality of Melora Creager’s music and lyrics and the performance of all three members of Rasputina. Luis Mojica, in particular, comes across as a sort of super utility player, with his beat-box percussion, his use of the occasional hand drum and other percussive instruments and, naturally, the variety of instruments programmed into his simple keyboard. As in most great musical pieces, this performance proved that it isn’t only the notes played but, sometime, it’s the notes not played. Even though I can now cross Rasputina live off my bucket list, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t revisit that particular item if given the opportunity.


RASPUTINA: UNKNOWN

(SELF RELEASED; 2015)

unknowncover

I have long been enamored of the look, the feel, the sound of Melora Creager’s pioneering Gothic cellists, Rasputina. For the past two decades (more or less), Creager’s dark pop sensibilities have collided with her sense of adventure, creating a sound that is, at once, steeped in musical styles long out of vogue and thoroughly modern in its approach. Rasputina’s lyrics are legendary in scope, retelling the folkloric stories of women – both real and fictional – generally relegated to the footnotes and page margins of history and myth. Now, after a prolonged layoff, Melora and Rasputina have returned with a new collection of fourteen chamber pop masterpieces, the self-released UNKNOWN. While the album is mostly Melora alone, in what she has called “a dank basement studio,” current Rasputina members Luis Mojica and, after a near-twenty year sabbatical, the returning Carpella Parvo do make the occasional guest appearances.

Rasputina's Melora Creager (publicity photo)

Rasputina’s Melora Creager (publicity photo)

Though the album (only available here) is less than 50 minutes in length, it is a sprawling miasma of diabolic visions and unsettling noises, as befits the purely modern incident that triggered the music… Melora was Cloud-hacked. The opening track, “Curse Tablet,” is a mad madrigal, with pretty voices reciting dark lyrics just below the furiously sawed cellos… rather like the voices you hear coming from beneath the blasphemed soil in an abandoned graveyard. The song is operatic in its musical scope and lyrical content (what you can make out through the haze, anyway). “Pastoral Noir” is a sing-song fever dream featuring a tribal vibe underneath some squalling, feedback-drenched cello. The narrative follows the goddess Vesta on her search for a shepherd named Tony. The goat-god with the answers, Pan, is embodied by Mojica and his chaos piano. Next is “Sparrow-Hawk Proud,” a (mostly) instrumental extension of the previous tunes aural abuse. “Unicorn Horn Mounted” is a unicorn’s lament for her lost horn. A whimsical tale of a guileless maiden named “Bridget Manners” sees the title character seeking her place in the world (or her stuff in the Cloud). The song is a brilliant vocal exercise featuring great harmonies (Malora’s multi-tracked voice, mayhap?). The dichotomous paranoia of “Indian Weedoffers another multi-tracked psychedelic vocal trip; it manages to be very disconcerting while sounding quite pleasant. “Unknown” is a jazzy, instrumental improv sort of thing, kinda like a Jaco or Stanley bass solo performed on a cello.

Rasputina (Luis Mojica, Carpella Parvo, Melora Creager) (publicity photo)

Rasputina (Luis Mojica, Carpella Parvo, Melora Creager) (publicity photo)

Emily Dickinson’s Trophy Envelope” is a seemingly rambling discourse on… Emily Dickinson by… uh… Emily Dickinson. It’s a frenetic, lunatic fringe of heavy, chugging cellos and tinkling piano fills. God, the Wizard of Oz and pudding all meet on the back of an envelope… that Dickinson woman was nuts! Another instrumental, “Steady Rain” is sort of like a Gothic hoedown. A very Siouxsie Sioux-like vocal performance with lyrics that well suit the track’s title informs “Psychopathic Logic.” Early on, the question becomes “just who is the psychopath?”The music is vaguely Middle Eastern. “Untitled I” is an instrumental, tonal in quality and a percursor to “Sensed.” That number is a languorous poem about death and obsession, but… is it real or imagined? Is the death natural or a murder or a suicide? Scraped strings and eerie vocals add a definite sense of horror to “Taken Scary,” a Sixteen Horsepower type of Gothic tale of revenge and murder. The album closes with “Hymn of the Wormwood Women,” another sullen, solemn mostly instrumental piece, with cellos and spooky vocalizations (no actual lyrics) doing the heavy work.

Rasputina's Melora Creager on stage, circa 2010 (uncredited photo)

Rasputina’s Melora Creager on stage, circa 2010 (uncredited photo)

After too long away, it is certainly good to have Melora Creager and Rasputina back with new music and back on the road, including a stop in Saint Louis at the magnificent Old Rock House on Sunday, August 9. Find other dates at the above link.


HELEN MONEY: ARRIVING ANGELS

(CORPSE FLOWER RECORDS/PROFOUND LORE RECORDS; 2013)

HelenMoneyFront

Helen Money is the “experimental” alter ego of virtuoso cellist (and former Verbow member) Alison Chesley. Alison, using various unconventional techniques, effects pedals, overdubbing and studio trickery, creates music that is, at once, calming and disturbingly harsh. ARRIVING ANGELS is the third Helen Money record… it rocks. If you didn’t understand that first sentence, let me just say: “It’s a cello. It’s all cello. A cello that’s looped, distorted, manipulated and overdubbed to sound like a veritable metal guitar army.” That estimation is borne out on the opening track, “Rift,” which is loud, abusive, percussive and… awesome! “Upsetter” begins with ominous bass string plucking that leads to a conflict/resolution horror soundtrack thing, with soft, almost pastoral sections alternating with scary, frantic sections. The first time, really, that the cello actually sounds like a cello is during “Beautiful Friends.” While not as overtly heavy as some of the other numbers, the dynamics and the addition of drums (supplied by Neurosis’ Jason Roeder) make it just as memorable. “Radio Recorders” is a song built on tonalities… and the guitar riff from the Sweet’s “Action.” Amid the super-heavy drums, atmospheric layering and massive power chords, the slower passages feature some cool backward soloing from Chesley. It’s a definite favorite from this record.

Helen Money (Alison Chesley) (photo credit: TRAVIS MCCOY)

Helen Money (Alison Chesley) (photo credit: TRAVIS MCCOY)

Midwestern Nights Dream,” a Pat Metheny cover, utilizes a single plucked cello for a very pastoral – and somehow quite evocative – vibe. This is the tune that’s gonna have all of the bass and cello nuts fist-pumping and yelling, “That’s muh JAM!” A plucking, droning, orchestral thriller movie sound informs the first three minutes or so of the title track. From there, things erupt into a wicked loud solo, followed by more Jimmy Page/Jimi Hendrix style hammering abuse. Overall, “Arriving Angels” is a very powerful piece of music that must be heard to be believed. “Schrapnel” (yeah, that’s how it’s spelled) is a beautiful, somnambulistic crawl with cracking, echoey drums from Roeder and a cool, droning groove. Dennis Luxion adds minimal minor key piano to “Runout,” a tune highlighted by a gigantic drum sound and Alison’s guitar hero wizardry bookending some major-case droning feedback. A good measure of the overall sound of ARRIVING ANGELS is due to the legendary Steve Albini but, make no mistake – this music is chilling and thrilling and totally exquisite. And that’s all about Alison Chesley. Or Helen Money. Or, maybe, a bit of both.


MUSK OX: WOODFALL

(SELF-RELEASED; 2014)

Album Cover

Musk Ox is a three-piece from Canada, fronted by classically trained guitarist and unrepentant metal-head, Nathanael Larochette. Nothing spectacular about that, right? I’m sure that you can name at least one other Canadian three-piece (Rush, anyone?) Well, how’s this for spectacular, then? The trio also features cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne and violinist – and newest member – Evan Runge and they perform chamber music with the musical passion and emotional heft of metal. The group’s second full-length release (to go along with three EPs), WOODFALL is a suite in five parts, evoking the peace and serenity of beautiful and untouched Canadian landscapes. The piece runs approximately an hour in length and features some of the most breathtaking original chamber music that I’ve heard in a very long time.

Musk Ox (Evan Runge, Raphael Weinroth-Browne and Nathanael Larochette) (publicity photo)

Musk Ox (Evan Runge, Raphael Weinroth-Browne and Nathanael Larochette) (publicity photo)

The pastoral “Earthrise” gives way to an impression that, viscerally, feels like its title: “Windswept.” With the violin and classical guitar taking the lead, separately and in tandem, the cello holds the bottom end, acting as much as a percussive instrument as a stringed one. When Weinroth-Browne does bring his instrument to the fore, it is amazingly effective. “Arcanum” is quite a powerful piece and it’s here that Larochette’s metal upbringing truly shines through. I think, that in his utter arrogance, this is the kind of guitarist that Yngwie Malmsteen fancies himself to be. Yngwie would shove his head through a wall trying to play this stuff! An unbridled sense of serenity ushers in “Above the Clouds,” alternating with a charging cello, possibly indicative of storm clouds brewing. Again, there is a very metallic sturm und drang emotional roller coaster ride going on here and features some of my favorite moments of the entire suite. As night falls, it is time to “Serenade the Constellations.” Runge and Weinroth-Browne play harmonics for much of the first piece, with a lilting Larochette guitar part playing over that bed. Runge occasionally steps out for a solo part or joining the guitar for more harmony playing, creating a nice Celtic folk ambiance. Though the album filled with great, heart-stopping moments throughout, this final 17-plus minute piece is probably my favorite overall. The five separate impressions of WOODFALL has taken us full circle, from pastoral morning to beautiful night and back again. Okay, Canada… I guess this makes up for Celine Dion and Loverboy… but just barely, eh?