Hot Rats by Frank Zappa

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The virtuosic drums are swiftly followed by a perfect set of piano chords played in powerful octaves. This introduction from Frank Zappa’s ‘Hot Rats’ album had me enticed from the moment I listened. The excitement to hear the progression of this deeply experimental, unconventional and jazz-infused album was intense, and even after many listens of this album, that excitement never wavers. ‘Hot Rats‘ is Zappa’s second solo album, differing greatly from his previous works due to its heavy instrumental focus, whilst previous albums are much more vocally focused. Despite Zappa publicly disliking the concept of the psychedelic movement, the artwork for this cover utilises mostly block colours to achieve a grainy, psychedelic-inspired look.

Peaches en regalia’ is the first song of the album. The movement of the piano is as oscillating as the journey the song takes me on, with its unpredictable transitions aligning with the ascending and descending intensities. There are slides and bends used in instruments that would not typically adopt these techniques. The dissonance of the brass instruments somehow find their perfect position within the heavily layered song, often distorting the recognition of the type of instrumentation used. The sudden key change, alongside a change in instrumentation and texture, leads to an oriental style with a completely different mood of organised chaos. The constant changing between major and minor keys changes the whole feeling of the song, it really takes you on a journey. The same motifs are heard throughout the song, yet their adoption by different instruments, and in conjunction with other motifs builds the song completely. If I could place an appropriate action to symbolise this song, it would be that moment when you can feel the wheels of a plane lifting off the ground, the initial shock to the body results in you feeling light, heavy, relieved and excited all at once. It is undefinable in terms of genre, sometimes bordering along the lines of film score music, and sometimes classic rock.

The second song, ‘Willie the Pimp’, starts with a powerful instrumental introduction, where soon after we are met with Captain Beefheart’s coarse, blues-influenced vocals, resonating with you alongside the piercing violins. The collective sound of violins and electric guitar focuses the power on this instrumental backing further. The vocals follow the melody of these instruments, furthering this intensity. The instrumental solos that are backed by the wailing of Captain Beefheart in the background add to this formulated chaos. There is no denying that Zappa’s guitar playing is masterly. Polished, yet filled with raw intensity. Zappa described the album as ‘a movie for your ears’, and I could not agree more with this dystopian-fuelled, theatrical production that Zappa embraces us with.

The third song, ‘Son of Mr. Green Genes’ has a much calmer introduction than the two songs previously. It has a much more playful essence, with the instruments directly feeding into one another. The electric guitar promptly enters, only for a short burst. An ode to ‘Peaches en regalia’ is seen with those oscillating organs, but this time with the backdrop of an accompanying electric guitar. The calmness seen in the beginning is miles away, that beautiful chaos and virtuosity is back in full swing. Despite this, I still feel that it has a much lighter feel compared to ‘Peaches en regalia’. A slower, more drawn out instrumental section indicates that the song is drawing to a close. The expressive piano reminds me of the one seen in David Bowie’s ‘Lady Grinning Soul’.

The wind instruments in ‘Little umbrellas’ make me feel like I’m being guided through the mysterious world of Poirot. Every note sounds slightly confused, but this dissonance feeds into the enigma. ‘The gumbo variations’ is a seventeen-minute jam performance with a piercing, frenzied tenor saxophone. I can describe it only as madness. ‘It must be a camel’ is the last song on the album, and the large melodic leaps almost bring that image of ‘camel’ to life musically.

The daring disorganisation feels as though Zappa has truly shuffled the stereotypes of rock in one album. If Alice had been placed in the absurd world of ‘Hot Rats’, I imagine her experience compared to in Wonderland would not have been too dissimilar.

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