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Frank Zappa - Halloween Print E-mail
Tuesday, 04 February 2003

Frank Zappa   
format:    DVD-Audio
label:    DTS Entertainment
release year:    2003
performance:    9
sound    9
reviewed by:    Bryan Dailey

ImageAs he was a musical pioneer who broke every rule in the book when it came to songwriting, recording, and performing, it’s truly fitting that a Frank Zappa album has finally been brought to DVD-Audio in 5.1 surround sound on the disc Halloween. Produced by Zappa’s son Dweezil, with assistance from Joe Travers and original concert recording engineer/mixer Joe Cicarelli, this DVD-Audio disc filled with live material is an incredible tribute to Zappa’s genius, bringing together the best performances from five live shows in New York City’s Palladium between October 27 and October 31, 1978. After the shows were over, Frank Zappa, using a razor blade to splice the tapes, assembled a pseudo concert with his favorite songs from each of the five shows. Dweezil and company decided to use this concept for Halloween, but took it several steps further. They created what sounds like a single concert from the five evenings’ worth of 24-track master tapes, sometimes using several nights’ performances on one song. On the track “Magic Fingers,” there are elements from three of the five nights’ performances that are used to make up the song, but I defy anyone without excellent ears or years of experience editing audio professionally to hear the digital splices. The spaces between some of the songs are a tad obvious, but the edits within the actual songs are stellar. Zappa often used a similar technique on his studio albums, where a song that began as a studio track would magically morph into a live version of the same song. This obviously doesn’t happen on this live album, but it was surely an inspiration for the production team and Frank would have most certainly approved.

An overused expression when reviewing a live 5.1 music disc is that the surround sound makes you feel like you are “right in the middle of the crowd,” but this is an absolutely fitting description for both the 24/96 DVD-A and DTS surround sound mixes on Halloween. The idea that this disc is supposed to transport you back to 1978 and plant your ass firmly in an empty seat at the Palladium is hammered home during the album’s opening track titled “NYC Audience,” which is just that, one minute and 14 seconds of the crowd screaming, whistling and cheering as the band tunes up. You can almost smell the smoke in the air and see the band in front of you preparing to rock as crowd noise envelops you from all sides.

Throughout his career, Zappa surrounded himself with some of the most incredible musicians to ever grace a stage or recording studio. From drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, who now frequently tours with Sting and is without question one of the finest studio drummers of all time, to legendary keyboard player Peter Wolf, Zappa knew how to fill a stage. In fact, he really filled the stage for these Halloween shows, with two bass players, two keyboard players, a drummer, a percussionist, a rhythm guitarist and a violin player. With so many musicians, this is where the surround sound format really shines. Each instrument has room to breathe, providing for some very intense musical moments that would simply get buried in a stereo mix.

After welcoming the crowd, introducing the band members and telling the audience what a treat they are in store for during the opening song “Ancient Armaments,” the band rocks out the anti-disco classic “Dancin’ Fool.” With its hyper xylophone runs flying from speaker to speaker, Zappa’s hilarious lyrics and the section with the cheesy disco room pickup lines, this song has it all. The bridge of the song even has a honky-tonk feel that only Zappa and company could pull off.

One of the best demos to explain surround sound to your friends and family is the Vinnie Colaiuta drum solo song called “Zeets.” With just the drum kit playing and the tom tom drum fill spinning around the room, even someone without a musical “ear” will understand how discrete surround sound works. Drum solos tend to bore the pants off most non-drummers, but Colaiuta’s drum flurries take on a whole new life in 5.1 surround.

When it comes to improvising, there was none better, save perhaps Jimi Hendrix, at crafting a tasty guitar solo than Frank Zappa. On the album’s nearly 17-minute closing medley “Black Napkins (the Deathless Horsie),” we are invited to step into the mind of this guitar genius as he noodles around the fret board in a way that ebbs and flows in so many musical directions that I have to wonder how much was planned, and how much was off the cuff. With incredible control over his slap echo effect that radiates in the rears, Zappa pushes the tonal and rhythmic limits to the extreme as his talented rhythm section fills in the spaces. Zappa plays call and response rhythms with Coliauta's drums in the midst of his solo before coming to a breakdown with the xylophone. Then the rest of the band kicks back in.

Halloween clocks in at around 70 minutes, but the actual Halloween night performance was approximately four hours long. While immersed completely in the album, the time seemed to fly by, leaving me mentally exhausted yet ready to relive the experience. Before Tenacious D, Weird Al, Mr. Bungle or Gwar, there was Frank Zappa. He unquestionably pioneered the world of music comedy, combining elements of pop, fusion jazz and hard rock with hilarious lyrics, bizarre song and album titles. It’s one thing to make funny, strange music, but achieving it with virtuoso musicians is what sets Frank Zappa apart from anyone else who has ever tried to infuse comedy into their music.

To have an archive of the best moments from five live Zappa shows while he was in his prime, blended into in to 70 magic minutes of surround sound, is a real treat. In a section on the disc appropriately titled “Trick or Treats,” there are several video clips, including footage of Zappa and his band performing “Dancin’ Fool” on “Saturday Night Live.” Other extras on the disc are a complete discography of Zappa’s albums, both solo and with the Mothers of Invention, as well as a radio interview, his bio, song lyrics and an explanation of the album’s cover art. There plenty of treats on the disc, but real trick about it is that it‘s the only Zappa title on DVD-Audio to date. This one is so good that hopefully the relationship between the Zappa estate and DTS will continue, so that we can look forward to seeing some of Zappa’s staggering discography of studio albums on DVD-Audio.

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