Ahead Of Their Time

Frank Zappa

Rykodisc, 1993


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


The one drawback to hearing any live show - it doesn't matter who the artist is - is that there is some aspect of the concert that is visual, and when you try to separate the audio on its own without any of the visuals, something is inherently lost in the translation. Very few live albums have gotten it right; others have tried mightily, but failed through no fault of their own.

In the case of Ahead Of Their Time, a recording of the 1968-era Mothers Of Invention performing a series of skits onstage to tie together some choral music that Frank Zappa had been writing while on the road, that lack of visuals is painfully evident. (According to All-Music Guide, some of the scenes made it into the film Uncle Meat, which I've never seen.) When the band focuses on the music that made their name, the disc turns out to be pretty good (even if the sound borders on pseudo-bootleg at times), but when the play is the thing, the experience sours.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

This, indeed, is the problem with early Mothers Of Invention material, in that the work that Zappa and crew did on stage was as much visual as it was musical. In this case, with Zappa bringing in members from the BBC Symphony Orchestra to accompany the band for the choral pieces of music, the scene had to be held together with action on-stage. In this case, it was a play where members of the Mothers are torn between structured music and avant-garde. That's about all of the story that I was able to figure out, as it quickly delves into weirdness that you almost need a GPS to navigate. I mean, how does one explain a cut named "The Rejected Mexican Pope Leaves The Stage"?

The choral pieces, to be honest, are nothing to write home about - though they did contain some of the seeds that would later germinate into 200 Motels. Unfortunately, that greatness isn't always evident here. Maybe it's because the pieces are buried in the bizarre stage play, maybe it's the sub-par sound (though there's nothing that could be done about that, as this was the only performance of this suite of songs with stagework).

When the Mothers get down to work, though, they prove to be unstoppable. Kicking in to "King Kong," the listener knows that the magic is starting - and it proves to be nearly unstoppable, as the band tears through classics like "Transylvania Boogie," "Let's Make The Water Turn Black," "Harry You're A Beast," "Help I'm A Rock" and "The Orange County Lumber Truck". In this regard, the Mothers are captured at one of their best points.

So, it's hard to say that Ahead Of Their Time is a failure - though it's not possible to call it a success, either. Anyone not schooled in the pre-1970 Mothers Of Invention will undoubtedly be lost listening to this disc - as I was way back when I first bought it over a decade ago. Those with knowledge of the Mothers' music will celebrate the live tracks, but tread carefully on the stageplay.

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.

Rating: C

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© 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 Rykodisc, and is used for informational purposes only.