DVD review: FRANK ZAPPA – A Token Of His Extreme

Eagle Vision [Release date 04.06.13]

What’s not to like about a TV special featuring Zappa in an intimate concert setting with one of the very best fusion line-ups of his career? It doesn’t get much better than this, though the fact it took French TV exposure for it to eventually see the light of day, tells you a lot about bland American TV networks and the niche market for fusion music.

In a 1988 interview Zappa famously stated: ‘everything is part of what I do for, let’s call it, my entertainment work. It’s all part of the same continuity. It’s all one piece. It all relates in some weird way back to the focal point of what’s going on’.

And this posthumous release is an example of that tradition, starting as it does with his early career ‘Dog Breath Variations’, ‘Uncle Meat’ and the  early claymation work of Bruce Bickford, which only received its full premiere in ‘Baby Snakes’ five years later. Similarly clips from both this 1974 studio concert and Bickford visuals would also appear in 1982 video ‘The Dub Room Special’, which was later reissued on DVD in 2005.

‘A Token Of His Extreme’ squares the circle, giving us nearly all the original concert, though curiously it omits ‘Cosmic Debris’.  But given Zappa is in an ebullient mood, combining musical brilliance with improvised humour, it’s an essential purchase for all fans.

It’s a measure of the fast pace of technology that this concert, originally conceived as a TV special, has now  featured in both video and DVD formats superseding its authors claim that: ‘It’s probably one of the finest pieces of video work that any human being has ever done’.

The band is stunning, and if you can overlook some annoying rapid cutaways there are moments of focussed brilliance, most notably when Ruth Underwood goes through her full percussive repertoire and when Napoleon Murphy Brock and Zappa enjoy an improvised rap on ‘Room Service’.

However, in spite of the nifty camera work, it’s still the music that remains the essential ingredient. If you never got Zappa’s mix of guitar driven eclecticism, satire and scintillating musicianship, then this DVD answers most of the questions.  There’s plenty of beautiful fractured melodies, breathtaking improvisation, thrilling band interplay and Frank’s ever present sense of the bizarre.

‘A Token of His Extreme’ comes from the post Flo and Eddie comedy era and focuses mainly on his fusion band’s musical excellence. Unlike his equally proficient, but rather more clinical 80’s tour bands, this core line-up really look as if they were enjoying themselves while giving full reign to their talents.

Napoleon Murphy Brock stars on horn, choreography and incredible vocals, particularly on ‘Florentine Pogen’.  George Duke combines  fusion based virtuosity with falsetto phrasing on the marvellous ‘Inca Roads’, alongside Ruth Underwood’s bristling vibes and percussion.

The front line players are anchored by the formidable rhythm section of drummer Chester Thompson – who remains impressively unflustered while being set upon by someone in a gorilla costume – and bassist Tom Fowler, a rock steady figure of studied concentration, though even he raises a smile on the funky ‘Pigmy Twylyte’, before Zappa adds one of his very best solo’s.

The production techniques vary between close up studies of the musicians to rapid fire screen flashes as exemplified by Bruce Bickford animations which are the closest anyone has ever got to a visual representation of Zappa oeuvre.

The clay animations brilliantly coalesce with Zappa’s deep toned wah-wah solo on ‘Inca Roads’, though the visuals tread a thin line between wonderment and annoyance. You could argue that essential ‘head’ music like this doesn’t need any visual representation, but that would be to overlook the whole notion of Zappa’s video art.

Look carefully and you will see Zappa sniff at the conclusion of the song as if to say how about that!  He adds two signature solo’s on ‘Son Of Orange County’ as Napoleon grapples with a dummy, and an exquisite bluesy solo on the re-titled ‘More Trouble Every Day’

The bonus material includes a discography, videography and an interview with TV talk host Mike Douglas, who asks Frank about his musical sources and the film.  Zappa’s jam with the house band on ‘Black Napkins’ really is a bonus and bookends an essential purchase. ***** (5/5)

Review by Pete Feenstra


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