Wednesday, June 29, 2005


More Conceptual Continuality here, appropriately enough, as we follow on from our last post with yet more Nordic Post-Prog. Namely, an album of Frank Zappa compositions performed by a bunch of young Finnish musicians using Baroque instruments:

Ensemble Ambrosius formed in the mid/late-Nineties as a sort of musical-college 'joke' that took on a life of its own, but what's really amazing about this (at last count) 7-piece ensemble is how young these guys are...jeez: they look about 16 years-old on the pictures. I first heard them on a Radio-3 lunch-time live 'session' about 3-4 years ago where they performed a mixture of Zappa pieces and their own equally Zappa-esque compositions. Man, they sure rocked St. Martins-in-the-Field!

About 2 days later I tracked down The Zappa Album, a CD-only release which is positively bulging with Frank's finest tunes, and was released with the full blessings of Gail Zappa and The Zappa Family Trust. Simply put, if you like Zappa's music, then you'll probably like this; otherwise, forget it...

Since large sections of "Uncle Meat", "Burnt Weenie Sandwhich", etc effectively started life as Rock-Chamber-Concrete pieces, putting a Baroque Spin on Zappa's music almost seems a no-brainer. Frank's love of Dolphy, Varese and Nancarrow already predisposed him towards woodwinds and tuned percussion such as the marimba, which are here easily replaced by, er, woodwinds and glockenspiels. Ditto: his fondness for dramatic harpsicord flourishes (is "Evelyn, a Modified Dog" itself not a feverished FZ reimagining of a frenzied 20-second slice from the soundtrack of Disney's Peter Pan...?) is easily emulated by Olli Virtaperko and the boys. Zappa songs often lovingly lampooned the thrillingly-cheesy Hammond and Farfisa Organ licks favoured by Sixties West-Coast Garage Rock and Bar-Bands, but here they are absurdly replicated on an Eighteenth Century Chamber Organ.

Superficially, this would appear to be the antithesis of Finnish Freakfolk; Ensemble Ambrosius might be refugees from the Academy, but they sound like they're having a lot of fun here. Bum notes are occasionally played, and there's a refreshing looseness in some of the arrangements given the source's, erm, "statistical density". Lacking scores, they took the Steve Vai route and worked out what notes to play by listening to the original records...

The results, on the whole, are pretty successful.

On "One Size Fits All", "Sofa" is soaring Mock-Teutonic Funk, lewd and lascivious, wonderously overwraught; somehow the Ensemble Ambrosius shift its centre of gravity, temporally retrofitting and reupholstering the song as a stately, decorous Pavane. Stripped of its original pseudosexual connotations, the music seems to now take satirical potshots at some pointless and half-remembered bourgeois ritual. Similarly, "Inca Roads" is revisited as a tipsy minuet, whereas "The Orange County Lumber Truck" always sounded like it had been written in 1789.

But the real revelations here are the interpretations of Zappa's generally-reviled Eighties work: "Alien Orifice" is rescued and recast as a piece of Pre-Danny Elfman cinematic frippery...Zappa's synclavier composition "G-Spot Tornado" is fearlessly tackled head-on and 'humanised' into the demented faux Oirish speed-jig that we always knew it was. Hearing them play this supposedly-unplayable piece of music live with such warmth and humour on the radio was a shock I don't think I'll ever recover from.

"The Idiot Bastard Son" is the only piece that retains its original lyrics; here, forty years on, they are sung 'straight', stripped of any obvious ironic-comedic effect and flanked by violins, oboes and cellos, they effortless hit their intended target with an unnervingly quiet, almost polite, savagery that only a European could affect: "The Idiot Bastard son (his father's a Nazi in Congress today...)" sounds as scarily relevent now as it did back then.

There is an unexpected sadness, a poignancy bordering on pathos, within this song that their sombre arrangement helps to unearth, and for a moment, the clouds of cynicism briefly disperse and we get a rare and unexpected snapshot of Frank Zappa, the human being:

And enter the world
Of liars and cheaters and people like you
Who smile and think you know
What this is about

The song we sing: DO YOU KNOW?
We're listening . . ."