I first heard this dense and deliciously twisted album in October 1993 in the room where much of it was created: Frank Zappa’s recording studio at his home, in Los Angeles. I felt privileged and a little sad; Zappa was upstairs, too ill to receive visitors. Two months later I was writing his obituary.
This is Zappa’s magnum epitaph — an opera pantomime, as he calls it in the liner notes, about the pathetic mess we call Western society as observed by a freaky band of malcontents that lives inside a giant piano. Civilization Phaze III is nearly two hours long and was more than 25 years in the making, if you include the spaced-ranger dialogue that Zappa culled from the outtakes of his 1967 LP Lumpy Grary. And the libretto comes with stage directions that make Philip Glass’ mega-operas look like supper-club theater. Consider this setting for “Religious Superstition”: “Jesus leans out of the piano and with a few mystical hand movements, causes the sunken buildings of Venice to resurface. Rising with them we see large, perversely mutated crabs.” Zowie!
There is drama aplenty in the music, a seamless mix of solo digital-synthesizer performances by Zappa and real-time renditions by the chamber group Ensemble Modern. Zappa’s score is rich with the lively outlaw dynamics (knotty melodic agitation, hairpin tempo maneuvers, mutant instrumental voicings) that have long distinguished his orchestral work. In “Put a Motor in Yourself” a runaway whorehouse-piano figure is fattened with reptilian oboe flourishes, muted Miles Davis-style trumpet and the accelerated stutter of what sounds like a Japanese koto. “Xmas Values” is a marvel of evil suggestion, with the Stravinsky-noir splatter of fright-show reeds and pig-fart brass and the goose-stepping cadence of plucked strings.
Civilization is also a work of surprising warmth and soul, qualities in Zappa’s music that were rarely acknowledged during his lifetime. The seductive Euro-cabaret air of “Amnerika” and disquieting gentility of “Buffalo Voice” belie the perception that Zappa was obsessed with atonal fireworks and cerebral corn. He was, in fact, a master dramatist, using the genuine grandeur and comic potential of classical orchestration to document the cliffhanging sensation of sociopolitical collapse. In “Beat the Reaper,” the ninemovement climax of Civilization, Zappa vividly captures the paranoid tension and bleak foreboding of impending holocaust — before slapping you hard on the ass with a delightful slice of elephant-disco slapstick.
In Civilization, as he did throughout his life, Zappa finds power, refuge, pleasure and hope in music — the giant piano of his imagination. Like every other record he ever made, Civilization Phaze III is Frank Zappa’s way of saying, “Yeah, everything is fucked, but all is not lost.”