Frank Zappa - Jazz From Hell (1986)

Night School 4:48
The Beltway Bandits 3:28
While You Were Art II   7:16
Jazz From Hell 3:00
G-Spot Tornado 3:16
Damp Ankles 3:45
St. Etienne 6:05
Massaggio Galore 2:32
Total Time: 34 min, 39 sec

After filling half of two albums with synclavier pieces, and doing an entirely synclavier album of someone else's music, Frank finally used the machine to do almost an entire album of his own music. The exception on this disc is St. Etienne a guitar solo track recorded live in concert.

Jazz From Hell starts out sounding fairly accessible, and gradually gets more and more avant garde. Night School has a steady beat to it, and is actually pretty catchy. Beltway Bandits also has a relatively straight-forward rhythm, but starts to get very angular and odd with the melody. While You Were Art II leaves all traces of regular rock behind, with a confusing barrage of notes flying around in what seems almost a random manner. I've got to admit that the first time I heard this piece, I didn't like it at all. It has grown on me a little, but it's still a tough one to sit through. The released version is a second draft (thus the "II" in the title) - I've heard the first draft on a bootleg, and I actually like it a little better. It's just a bit easier for a musically simple mind like my own to grasp.

The title track continues the avant melodies, but includes some drum and percussion sounds, and somthing close to a standard jazz walking bass line. It's a little easier to digest than WYWAII. After that comes G-Spot Tornado, which also seems fairly random at first glance. Fortunately, when the Ensemble Modern were practicing for the Yellow Shark album, they asked Frank if they could play this piece. Zappa was skeptical whether humans could actually perform it, but printed out the sheet music and let them try it. The result is the stunning, jaw-dropping finale track to the YS disc. Hearing that version brought out the melodies and rhythms for me, and gave me a much better appreciation for the synclavier version.

Damp Ankles is another fairly accessible track, with a dark feel to it. The title comes from the running water sounds at the beginning and end. Trivial tidbit: those are the sounds of a teen-age Dweezil washing his car. St. Etienne, as mentioned above, is a live guitar-solo track which was probably placed here to give rock fans a breather after absorbing all the new electronic music. It's actually one of Frank's most beautiful solos - he probably should have used it on a guitar album instead of tucking it away here where it might get overlooked amidst all the computer generated music. The album ends with Massaggio Galore, a franticly paced number full of odd sound effects and snorks. A sharp contrast to the mellow guitar solo that preceded it.

All in all, this was an album that I didn't appreciate much when I first got it. But with each additional listen, it grows on me more and more. Frank was really ahead of his time with this music. If you're into electronic music at all, you should hear this. Note thought that the album title is a little misleading - if you buy this expecting to hear computer-generated jazz music, you may be disappointed. This album is more avant garde than jazz.

Album Cover

Image of the Jazz From Hell album cover