Civilization Phaze III
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/27/2005
When Frank Zappa was working on what would become his final album (at least that he had control of), one would have thought that the music contained within would have been angry and energetic, almost as if Zappa were giving the finger one final time to the cancer that would claim his life in December 1993.
Instead, Civilization Phaze III, a disc meant to be a continuation of the story of the piano-dwellers first breached on Lumpy Gravy, sounds tired and resigned to the fate that sadly awaited Zappa.
It's long been said that Civilization Phaze III was the sequel to Lumpy Gravy. Okay, let's follow that line for a minute and compare the two. Lumpy Gravy, admittedly, wasn't the easiest disc to follow at times, but contained snippets of music that one could actually get into as well as some pieces of conversation that kept some level of the listener's interest. Civilization, in contrast, takes the leftovers from the 1967 sessions and tries to work in on the second half new conversations recorded in 1991 that were supposed to keep the story moving ahead.
The problem with this is twofold - and, remember, we're just focusing on the "piano people" right now. First, one gets the feeling that Zappa used the best portions of his recordings on Lumpy Gravy, and the more I listened to the "piano people" on the first half of Civilization, the more I'm convinced that these snippets should have stayed in storage. As for adding in new conversations - well, I'm sorry, but it just doesn't work for me. The participants - including members of Ensemble Modern, who Zappa was working with at the time to produce The Yellow Shark - almost sound embarrassed to be doing this, as if they're treading on sacred ground against their will.
Musically, Zappa finds himself almost completely alone again with the Synclavier - and I don't care how far technology moved ahead from 1984 to 1993, or how far it has evolved or will evolve, music coming out of a machine sounds just like it's coming out of a machine. The humanity and soul of the music is completely shot to hell, making it a dead giveaway that this wasn't coming out of live musicians. It would have been fascinating to have heard how Zappa could have made a rock band (had he still been following that career path) and orchestra to use on tracks like "Reagan At Bitburg," "Amnerika" and "N-Lite".
The one track that should have been the most lively, regrettably, turns out to be almost akin to the funeral march for Zappa. "Beat The Reaper" should have, at least to me, been a full celebration of life and a final thumbing of Zappa's nose at his impending death. Instead, this track is slow, plodding, and not terribly interesting to listen to. That, kids, is a damn shame.
Granted, it took me over a decade to finally comprehend what Lumpy Gravy was about and get to the point where I could listen to it and enjoy it. But we're talking about 40 minutes' worth of music in that case, all being performed by actual musicians. Somehow, I highly doubt I'll ever get to that point when talking about Civilization Phaze III, even in another 20 years. For Zappa's last official disc, this is a big letdown.
2005 Christopher Thelen and "The Daily Vault." All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of the Zappa Family Trust / record label, and is used for informational purposes only.