Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Frank Zappa - Civilization Phaze III

Frank Zappa
Civilization Phaze III

Released 1994 on Barking Pumpkin
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 06/05/2004ce

Describing the music on this album is very difficult. About 85% of it is produced on the Synclavier, a sort of computer orchestration gizmo (the remaining 15% is played by the Ensemble Modern, who performed on Zappa's "Yellow Shark" album.) Zappa had done a few albums of Synclavier music before, but the machine (and Zappa's facility with it) obviously improved over the years because this music doesn't really sound like it's made on a machine at all. The intonations and textures really DO sound like live musicians, except when they sound totally inhuman (which is intended as a compliment)!

It's as if Zappa The Composer has finally achieved The Composer's Greatest Dream -- to pour the music straight out of his head and heart without anybody else having to mediate in the production of the sound. The melodies and rhythms on "CP3" sound exactly like Zappa music has always sounded, only more intricate and complex! Some sounds are readily identifiable as "violins", "guitars", "xylophones" etc., but then there's other sounds equally integrated into the compositions that run the gammut from cartoonish grunts & squeaks to his famous "chattering false teeth" sound to . . . to indescribable sounds that don't exist even in mythology!

Of course this is a Zappa Magnum Opus of two hour's length, so it's got the patented Zappa "conceptual continuity" thing going on. Aurally continuity comes from the inclusion of more dialogue recorded in the piano during the "Lumpy Gravy" sessions back in 1967, and appearances by old pals like Roy Estrada. There's also some new dialogue recorded by Moon & Dweezil & members of the Ensemble Modern (speaking in German and Belgian sometimes.) So anyway the "Libretto" that comes included sez this is really a theatre piece and the stage is set up to look like the inside of a gigantic piano. "Plot continuity is derived from a serial rotation of randomly chosen words, phrases and concepts, including (but not limited to) motors, pigs, ponies, dark water, nationalism, smoke, music, beer, and various forms of personal isolation."

Another bit of stage direction encapsulates Zappa's role in his musical universe as well as anything could: "Above the piano is a decrepit looking megaphone apparatus which allows the FZ character to address the inmates periodically." He's a cruel puppetmaster commanding his "inmates" but there's also something ridiculous about the "decrepitness" of the little old man and his "apparatus." Of course the giant piano in which all the staged action takes place is the sound-world of Music itself, where Zappa in fact lived most of his life (as opposed to the "real world" out there which, as every misanthrope knows, is full of Assholes!)

Act one of "CP3" begins with some dialogue by familiar voices from "Lumpy Gravy," riffing on those good old days inside the piano:

FZ: The audience sits inside of a big piano and they listen to it grow.

Spider: People are going to sit inside of a piano. They're going to listen to this piano grow.

John: They're going to listen to the piano grow?

Spider: It's going to turn into another Haight-Ashbury. Remember how we commercialized on that scene?

John: That was a really good move!

Spider: Right, man . . . and all it was, was like people sitting around in doorways freaking out tourists going . . . (sings a few bars of Wild Man Fischer's "Merry Go Round") . . . and they called that "doing their thing!"

John: Oh yeah, that's what 'doing your thing' is!

Spider: The THING is to put a motor in yourself!

Which cues the first synclavier piece, a bubbling percussive little number that is as close to "rock" as anything on this album gets. It's also got a faux-egyptian "pharonic" vibe to it, conotating "mysterious ancient civilizations." The libretto describes the action on stage thusly:

"PUT A MOTOR IN YOURSELF: A yuppie precision drill team dresses for work in motorized uniforms, eventually engaging in a dance routine featuring ladder climbing, ass-kissing, karate chopping, self-hugging, eventually leading to politics and murder."

And it goes on like this with bits of random dialogue in between instrumentals whose theatrical components involve various religious, political and other symbolic figures . . . and lots of pigs and ponies. One of the politically-themed pieces indicates that the warring pigs & ponies represent mindless nationalism:

"REAGAN AT BITBURG: The shopping mall tableau does a quick change, becoming the Bitburg Cemetary. Ronald Reagan appears and lays a wreath on an SS officer's grave. Within moments the stage is filled with happy dancing Nazi-pigs and Nazi-ponies."

Act Two begins to climax with "DIO FA" (Italian for "God's a liar") -- which starts with ominous bass drones, "throat singer" style monk chanting and mystical space gongs until the sound of a grunting pig gradually dominates. The narrative action involves the death of the Pig-Pope, who is of course immediately replaced by an identical Pony-Pope.

Cut to Spider & John in the piano again: "maybe we'd get more strength from our music if we understood it" -- "No! See I think our strength comes from our uncertainty . . . " Cue rainstorms . . .

"BEAT THE REAPER: With the thunderclap, various types of inexplicable 'social actions' break out all over the stage . . . the 'actions' should illustrate the current fetish for life extending of "youthening" trends, including meditation, bizarre diets, pill and algae consumption, violent aerobics, "The Easy Glider", stair-steppers, etc.

WAFFENSPIEL (German for "weapon play"): Life goes on outside the piano -- more rain, excitable dogs, automatic weapons fire, traffic, building demolition, etc. The Reaper, much to the dismay of the dancers in the previous piece, arrives (when the car door slams) to claim them. Act Two ends with a large model of a crop-dusting plane, spraying the audience with a toxic substance."

Musically, "BEAT THE REAPER" is a curious and unsettled piece that seems to want to go somewhere but isn't sure where to go ("our strength comes from our uncertainty" musically personified) and is certainly Zappa's musical final word on his own impending mortality (he made this album after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.) "WAFFENSPIEL" is even more unsettling, as it has no "music" whatsoever it's just sound effects painting the dismal picture described in the libretto (barking dogs and guns shots in the distance that seem to get closer as the piece progresses.) After the crop-dusting plane "flies overhead" (to murder the audience, and this means YOU TOO pal!) the gunfire ceases and there's nothing left but the peaceful sound of chirping birds as a new dawn rises. Sort of uplifting in a morbid kind of way!

"Civilization Phaze III" is unique among Zappa's various opii (opuses?) basically because it's a SERIOUS work. Full of humour of course, I don't think Zappa could make an album without at least a couple jokes in it, but here the humour is subtley supplied by the funny little melodies and arrangements and not broadly-drawn obnoxious "joke songs." And the humour does help the rather heavy message of the whole thing go down smoother. It's not a downer album though, it's one of the more uplifiting musical epitaphs I can think of.

Sure he came across as a real jerk sometimes, but after hearing this album you can't help but empathize with that crazy old iconoclast. In his youth he famously quoted Varese: "The modern day composer refuses to die!" But as an old man, the modern day composer faced his death with wisdom, grace and sober good humour.

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