Monday, March 08, 2010

A Prog Rock Guide to the Project/Object - Uncle Meat 1969

This album by the original Mothers of Invention came out during the decline of the summer of love. Frank Zappa had little sympathy for the hippie movement that was sweeping the western world at the time. There's no secret that he saw the whole thing as shallow and misguided. Looking back on that era with hindsight, it appears as though he was spot on with his assessment. All the optimism and hope that emanated out of the San Francisco area has panned out to be nothing but hot air (and pot smoke). While the rest of the world was gearing up for Woodstock, you get the feeling that Zappa was well into the 70s by this point of his career. October 1969 would bring about King Crimson's Court of The Crimson King and the start of Progressive Rock; Frank Zappa was already there, ahead of his time as usual, in April.

Uncle Meat was a bit of change of directions for The Mothers. This mostly instrumental album was their first double album since the debut Freak Out! and was almost unrecognizable in comparison. From the first notes of the title track you know that Zappa was taking huge steps forward in terms of his abilities as a composer. Having already dismissed the flower power movement on We're Only In It For The Money, Uncle Meat is more about pushing forward all sorts of musical boundaries. Though still classified as a 'rock' album, you get the feeling that Zappa was more interested in contemporary classical and jazz music at this point of his career. Steadily adding more musical-literate members to The Mothers in the late 60s, Uncle Meat presents Zappa the composer using his band as a small chamber orchestra. Zappa the producer was also taking on huge advancements, as there is no shortage of fancy tape manipulation and quick and quirky edits all over this album. The result is something that sounds as unique today as it did in 1969.

The centrepiece of the album resides on its fourth side. King Kong was Zappa the jazz fusion pioneer leading his band in an extended jam that travels the gamut of spaces and places. The main theme is easily one of Zappa's all time classics and would easily foreshadow his first solo album Hot Rats. If you're looking for something a bit more radio-friendly give Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague a shot. In four minutes you get a bit of catchy silly high-pitched vocals in the style of Only In It For The Money and then an instrumental section that perfectly sums up the rest of the album. Elsewhere you get more Doo-Wop parody in the form of the humorous and charming Electric Aunt Jemima, the neo-classical compositions The Legend of The Golden Arches and Project X and the avant guard in the form of Nine Types of Industrial Polution.

Don't get the impression that you'll be able to pick and choose individual tracks from this double album. Like pretty much everything Zappa did, it's best consumed entirely in one sitting. For an album with so many styles and shifts, it holds together surprisingly well as a whole. This is very true for it's original vinyl release, but probably less so for the CD version. You see, for reasons only known to Frank, the CD issue of Uncle Meat comes plagued with what fans have come to call "Penalty Tracks". Uncle Meat, in it's original form, was meant to be a soundtrack to a film that Zappa was working on at the time. He ran out of money and was unable to finish the film until some time in the 1980s. On the CD reissue he decided to add long audio excerpts from the film. These tracks go on for over half an hour and are really hard to listen to. They consist of people talking about, um...chickens and uhhh other things of no particular relevance. I've yet to see the completed the film, but I'll assume that you need the visuals to fully appreciate these pieces of dialog. As for as the album Uncle Meat goes, placing these tracks right in the middle of the CD destroys the perfection that existed on Vinyl. I might also mention the inclusion of the 1982 song "Tengo Na Minchia Tanta" (meaning "I've Got a Big Cock" in Sicilian), but I won't. Suffice to say it doesn't belong.

If you're new to Uncle Meat I highly recommending trying to track down a copy on vinyl. Not only is it missing the "Penalty Tracks" but it also sounds insanely better than the CD. In addition to adding tracks nobody wanted, Zappa covered the entire album with primitive 80s digital reverb on CD, making the whole album sound like cheap plastic. In comparison, the vinyl sounds full and lush. If you have no means to listen to vinyl and must resort to the CD, do yourself a favour and skip the adding fluff. You'll probably enjoy the album much more without it. All these technical issues aside, Uncle Meat is an essential part of any Zappa collection.

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