(All Album Reviews by Burgess Penguin)
Amazing what a period of convalescence will do for a guy!
After having been severely injured by being pushed off a stage by a deranged fan, Frank Zappa refused to sit still and set to composing a bitingly hilarious song cycle/fantasy story (based on the Roman/Etruscan conflicts of ages ago). This involved several main characters, the funky emperor Cletus Awreetus Awrightus, his arch enemy from a neighboring province, the emperor Mediocrates, and an underground movement called The Questions.
Frank then assembled a 20+ member big band to flesh out his musical representation of the story (found in its entirety in the CD booklet and a hilarious read in its own right) and the results are nothing less than brilliant! While playing with Frank certainly required a very high level of musicianship from all concerned, there are some real standout players here, especially drummer Aynsley Dunbar and keyboardist George Duke (who brings lots of musical wit to the proceedings). Another musical standout are the brass ensemble passages, a wonderfully twisted blend of Stravinsky and vintage Saturday morning cartoons, especially on "Cletus Awreetus Awrightus", "Eat That Question" (on which George Duke has a field day too) and "For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers)". "For Calvin--" is the only piece not related to the album's story, instead, the surreal lyrics are based on an actual bizarre incident involving cover artist Cal Schenkel and a strangely uncommunicative hitchhiking hippie couple.
Which brings me to my next point, the cover!! I couldn't picture the album without this hilariously brilliant scene of Awrightus and Mediocrates soldiers in battle, with Mediocrates troops getting blown away by the deadly Mystery Horn!
Quibbles? My only ones at this point are:
With "The Grand Wazoo" in that it needed to be a bit shorter, the free soloing through most of it can try one's patience at times, but for those who persist, the rousingly hilarious brass choruses at the end are worth the wait!! The only other one is that I would've liked to hear a bit more of Zappa's axework (though he does let off some fireworks on "The Grand Wazoo" and "Eat That Question") throughout.
And if you don't mind those quibbles, this Zappa offering will have you laughing 'till you cry! Great instrumental fun to be had.