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Frank Zappa - Civilization Phaze III CD (album) cover


Frank Zappa



3.78 | 124 ratings

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3 stars This is the strangest album I've ever heard in my life. Now, it is true that my tastes, despite the fact that they aren't 100% mainstream, don't trend towards the extremely "out there" or avant-garde, so my observation along these lines should probably be taken with a grain of salt. I'm sure that many musicians have made albums that go beyond the bounds of, um, eccentricity that are set with this album, and that somewhere somebody could name me a dozen albums more "far out" than this one without breaking a mental sweat. Just know that, within the bounds of my collection, this is the strangest album I've ever come across, and it's definitely the strangest Frank Zappa album.

And yes, that means it's stranger than Lumpy Gravy. The thing about Lumpy Gravy's weirdness is that it was so all over the place that, ironically, it became easier to categorize its approach than if it had been more centralized. If this doesn't make sense, imagine, if you will, a crazy homeless person who stands on a street corner speaking all sorts of nonsense to anybody who'll come by and listen. If the person talks about really ridiculous things, then at first the person will seem strange and interesting. If the person then changes topics completely every two minutes or so, though, the effect will subside, and soon the overall reaction will settle on, "Oh, it's just another crazy homeless person." On the other hand, let's say the person, within his insane babblings, actually manages to create something that, at least in some ways, vaguely resembles something with a coherent narrative. In this scenario, your mind would be more likely to keep some focus on all of the insane stuff coming out of the person's mouth, and the effect of the babblings would be much more pointed. Essentially, you would have before you a sensible crazy person, and this would certainly seem to me a much odder and more compelling case than somebody babbling about anything under the sun with no shape or form.

The album is essentially two albums running in parallel to each other. One is relatively straight forward: it consists of a bunch of new classical compositions, mostly programmed into the Synclavier, with Ensemble Modern contributing some performances on the second disc. The second, then, is not so straight forward. It consists of voice recordings from 1967 (the same general set of recordings from which the conversations on Lumpy Gravy were extracted) and 1991, done by people speaking into a recording device inside a piano. The voice recordings, based on cues that Zappa would give from the control room, are rearranged into a story involving people who live inside a piano, have been living inside the piano since forever, discover that there are pigs and ponies living somewhere inside the same piano, and some other various things. The "story" (and it really isn't even that) is complete nonsense (and incredibly bizarre: I really don't think that I can properly relate how strange I think it is), but it's strangely fascinating nonsense, and it's fun to have it pop up repeatedly between the classical recordings. It really drives home to me that the main thing missing from Lumpy Gravy was something resembling a tangible, continuous thread: the thread here may be the strangest idea ever, but at least it exists, and it makes me want to give this at least a little more of a chance than I did LG.

Then there's the music. I'm really not sure how especially different the music on this album is from the bulk of Yellow Shark. Sure, the bulk of it here is from Synclavier instead of from an orchestra, but it seems more or less the same kind of thing that made up YS. And yet, I think the music here works better than did the music on YS, even if I'd be hardpressed to name any tracks that especially stood out to me for any particular reason. One thing that helps here is that there is definitely a common vibe throughout, one that's kinda bleak and dark and post-apocalyptic (probably because of the use of the Synclaiver, which lends itself to a weird "futurist" feel). Mood aside, while there are certainly a few tracks that lose me very quickly, there are also a number of cases where I find myself getting sucked in (and not repelled) by the complexity of what I'm hearing. If there's a better side-by-side comparison than YS and this of weirdness that's compelling and weirdness that's repelling, I haven't heard it.

Now, I really don't think that anybody but Zappa fans would have use for this: most people would roll their eyes at the ridiculousness of the piano people plot, and likewise most people wouldn't be able to handle the complexity of the compositions. And yet, while this isn't necessary for people who aren't Zappa fans, it's probably essential for any serious Zappa fan. It's very out of print (as of writing), and any copies of it will cost you an arm and a leg, but if you're hardcore enough to have bought The Yellow Shark, you're probably hardcore enough for this.

tarkus1980 | 3/5 |


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