Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A Prog Rock Guide to the Project/Object - Absolutely Free

This album was released in 1967! I really think history has almost forgotten just how innovative and ahead of their time The Mothers of Invention were. Zappa's first band were clearly breaking just about every rule in the book and doing so with style and class. Just to put into perspective how important the release date of this album is, consider that this is the same year The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's, the Moody Blues released Days of Futures Past and Jimi Hendrix released Are You Experienced. There is little doubt that these are important and innovative albums in the overall picture of Rock music, but with Absolutely Free I do believe that Frank Zappa and The Mothers were making full blown Progressive Rock years before King Crimson apparently launched the genre properly with In The Court Of The Crimson King.

Hear me out. While The Beatles take a lot of the credit for inspiring the legions of Progressive bands that followed, The Mothers were really laying the blueprint for Prog in a much firmer way than Sgt Pepper's ever did. Firstly, The Mothers were pretty good musicians. In fact, one of the reasons Zappa wanted to join these guys was that they had better musicianship then most of the other bands in the L.A. music scene at the time. While future lineups of Zappa bands were clearly much more polished in this regard, these early Mothers of Invention could certainly play their instruments at a level that was pretty advanced for Rock n' Roll in the late 60s. Just listen to all the shifting tempos and styles that this album possesses. In addition to the musical chops, Zappa was experimenting with the form of composition in ways that other bands wouldn't try for another couple of years at least. The original vinyl consists of two "Underground Oratorios", each of which took up a side of the LP. The first side was simply called Absolutely Free and was a flowing suite of music revolving around the subject of vegetables. The second side was called "The M.O.I. American Pageant" and revolved around the boring plastic nature of Americans at the time. Zappa's social satire is pretty clear, Americans and vegetables are pretty much interchangeable in many regards. This may seem like an obvious statement in our post-modern satirical era, but in 1967 these were pretty daring statements.

So we basically have two side long suites. That's a staple of what was to come as the Prog bands of the 70s pretty much took this format to the extremes. The humour in the lyrics is pretty apparent, if the constant giggling doesn't point that out. Zappa and The Mothers create a fun almost circus-like atmosphere but then, almost casual, toss off really perfectly played high-brow classical music references almost seemingly. Check out Status Back Baby. This is a fairly straight forward parody of late-sixties bubblegum pop music, but then suddenly during the instrumental break Zappa starts playing a phrase from Igor Stravisnky's Petrushka on his guitar and then the full band joins in and nails the big ending of the famous bombastic section from the same ballet! A whistle blows and then they go seamlessly back into bubblegum mode to finish off the song. Need I remind you that this is 1967? How incredible is that? Considering the influence Stravinsky had on the Prog bands of the early 70s, this is yet more proof that Zappa nailed the genre before it was even created.

From the musical complexity to the 'out-there' subject mattered covered on epics like Brown Shoes Don't Make It, I can't think of another album from 1967 that pushes the boundaries of Rock music like The Mothers of Invention did with Absolutely Free. Of course it may be these very factors that has caused the album to be largely ignored by mainstream audiences of the day and subsequently its lack of appraisal today. Regardless, many Zappa fans consider this album to be among the most concise examples of his genius. There is little doubt that this is an essential album for any Zappa collector and fan of Progressive music. It's an important historical document and shines today with its music and social satire resonating as strongly as ever.

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