26 December 2016

Ensemble Modern - Ensemble Modern Plays Frank Zappa (Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions)


I have been meaning to review this album for a few years now, it has been on the list to blog since I received it for Christmas in 2014 (or was it 2013); either way it is long overdue for this album to have another airing and I can give it a review.  To quote directly from Wikipedia - Ensemble Modern is an international ensemble dedicated to performing and promoting the music of modern composers. They were formed in 1980, the group is based in Frankfurt, Germany and made up variously of about twenty members from numerous countries.  The Ensemble Modern were the orchestra played on the album 'The Yellow Shark' which was the final album to be released before he passed away in 1993, an album which he described as one of the most fulfilling of his career.  This orchestra could tap into Zappa's music as they base they own sound in the modern interpretation of the orchestra and go for challenging pieces.  Now, some of the music on this album is taken from 'Jazz From Hell' and 'Civilization Phase III', it is short on what you would call 'hits' (as if you could use that word with Zappa); but it has ten tracks of seriously challenging orchestra music, so let us see what sweet music they make....

01 - Moggio

The first version of 'Moggio' I heard was in the album, 'The Man From Utopia' and it was a challenging piece when completed by a rock band; in the hands of the Ensemble Modern, it is transformed into a fascinating piece of orchestral music that keeps on giving.  It gives the music more substance and depth, given the fact that this is a Frank Zappa song, this is a tiny bit of a modern day miracle.

02 - What Will Rumi Do?

Originally performed as 'T'Mershi Duween' and first brought to the attention of the world when it was released on 'You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 2', this short building track is a joyful little piece that is sadly over far too soon, it is really beautiful and I wish it was longer.


03 - Night School

The good thing about 'What Will Rumi Do?' is that it acts as an introduction to the wonderful 'Night School' which can be found on the scary 'Jazz From Hell' album.  On the original, it was so many synth sounds going in different directions that it gave you an idea what a hive mind would sound like; on this version, it sounds like it has been created by angels and demons to make a luscious and beautiful making up song for the Morning Star and Jehovah - quite frankly, it sounds so much better than it has the right to sound and it gives me a better understanding of what the original was aiming to achieve.

04 - Revised Music For Low Budget Orchestra

This song has appeared with various titles on the likes of  'Läther', 'Studio Tan', 'King Kong' and 'Playground Psychotics', this is one of the most diverse piece on this album and that is no small feat ladies and gentlemen; much like a lot of the great man's work, it is a piece that is constantly in flux, always shifting and evolving.  It does not stop for a moment and I like that sort of piece, I like to be second guessing where the album is going to take me and it is such a joyful piece of art.


05 - The Beltway Bandits

Another 'Jazz From Hell' alumni, 'The Beltway Bandits' is such an aggressive number from the opening, even in this revised formation.  It is the one which stick closest to its original pattern, it is a harsh piece of music in any version and it still hurts the ears.  Not for the faint of heart or untrained Zappa enthusiast.

06 - A Pig With Wings

One of the more sinister pieces from 'Civilization Phase III', which large passages of silence to contrast the piano and guitars and that unsettling feeling is a reminder that music is not always a simple and easy form of expression.  Sometimes it is dark, minimalist and full of nightmarish sections of dread and despair, this piece of music has featured in my nightmares before and this version holds that same impact.

07 - Put A Motor In Yourself

Once more we are brought back to 'Civilization Phase III' with 'Put A Motor In Yourself' and this time we are taken away from the nightmare (to a certain degree) and the piece feels like the rabbit hole is swirling around is getting faster and faster, much like the boat ride on the first film version of 'Charlie & The Chocolate Factory'.  It keeps on ticking forward, still with that obvious Zappa drop in sound, giving the world a feeling that everything is not quite normal; so, business as usual in the Zappa world and the Ensemble Modern have translated it perfectly here.

08 - Peaches En Regalia

If ever there was a list made of the best-known Frank Zappa songs, I am pretty sure that 'Peaches En Regalia' would be quite high up that chart.  Originally from 'Hot Rats', it is one of the signature tunes of the man and it is treat with such respect, you could almost say too respectfully in some ways, but that is just me nit-picking to be honest with you.

09 - Naval Aviation In Art?

A song that appeared on 'Läther'/'Orchestral Favorites', 'Naval Aviation In Art?' is a slow and haunted piece with long passages of notes being held in a suspenseful manner, sharp rises in tone and lulls in sound.  But considering it is just under two and a half minutes long, it feels like it has so much more to give.  Mainly, it is just acting as a pause before we reach the finale of the album, which is perfectly understandable at this point.

10 - The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary

Ending the album is the twenty plus minute song called 'The Adventures of Greggery Peccary', it has the narration, it has changes, it has vocals and it is bonkers.  I mean it is box of kittens, fist of jam in the peanut butter jar and out of the ragged edge of reason crazy.  Couple that with the secret cover of 'Does This Kind of Life Look Interesting To You' on the end, it is a brilliant version of the song.

Covers albums can be hard to get right, even if you have worked with the artist in question before and have released one of his most definitive pieces of work; this album does a few things right, but it also does a few things wrong as well.  It makes sense of some of the more complex pieces of the Frank Zappa back catalogue and that is both brilliant and frustrating in equal measure.  Sometimes it is great to hear music that feels like you are wrestling with a bear who can operate laser chainsaws, danger is a key element to certain pieces of music.  However, it is also very rewarding to hear all the notes in their place and not sounding like they are being thrown into the void on a hope and a pray.  It is a pain to the heart here as they have created some beautiful covers here, but it is also just a cover album at the end of the day.  I love it, it is moving and I would love to see them live one day; but much like a lot of the work of the Lord Deity Zappa, it is as mad as a box of cats (for the most part).

Crazy cat symbols - This cannot be marked, so here is a photo of a box of kittens



Top track - Night School


You can purchase Ensemble Modern Plays Frank Zappa (Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions) of Amazon here

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