Frank Zappa

The Aristocrats — Tres Caballeros

Tres Caballeros **** The Aristocrats’ third album is a total winner for me…and anyone who is into modern shred-style dynamic playing should definitely acquaint themselves with this band. The Aristocrats is a supergroup of sorts comprised of Guthrie Govan on guitar, Bryan Beller on bass and Marco Marco Minnemann on drums and percussion. These guys are all great players and writers and have pedigrees that include work with Asia, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Dweezil Zappa. In a world awash with music and crap and sound and crap and crap and crap, there is still pure musicianship that is capable of jarring even the most aged, jaded listener (that would be me). While I didn’t know it when I originally mentioned posted, this disc was recorded all the way back in 2015, but since nothing new has been recorded since, this post is still a review of the band’s latest album (hehe) so I feel totally current and on-point. In addition to being a full-fledged post in the blog queue, this review will be added to the ever-expanding section under the “ALT” column in due time along with all of the other er, ALT stuff I’ve reviewed.

I have to admit that I don’t necessarily like bands like The Aristocrats as a rule. I never really listened to Vai, Satriani, Malmsteen or most of those shred/instrumental types mainly because I don’t hear a sense of humor or a certain dynamic sensitivity that I look for in music, therefore I find it hard to listen to. Let’s say a lot of seems to be made to impress and that’s it. Others will disagree I’m sure and that’s how music is; different strokes and all that. I would never dispute the guitar talents of any of those cats, or others like them, because they are obviously all great players. It’s just a matter of what type of music the guitarist/chooses as the environment from which to express. My tastes tend to either to the old school (Beck, Zappa, Howe, McLaughlin) or the Jazz Acoustic Manouche school (Lagrene, Rosenberg, Romane, Wrembel). So this is a bit of a departure for me, but I’ve really enjoyed the experience. The first thing that struck me about the Aristocrats is, aside from being great players, they obviously have a twisted sense of humor and don’t take themselves too seriously. I like that in a band, especially a band as “chops-city” as these guys. There is a great otherworldliness about the band; they would have made great guest stars playing some super-psycho dive bar on the rim of some spectral twilight in an episode of the X-Files. This wonderful weirdness pervades the music of the disc and the personality of the band and what’s not to like about that, I ask ya?

Musically the band is like a Ferrari; it goes from a sparse whisper to an over-the-top flurry of notes, percussive hits or rhythmic shifts in the space of a few bars. Sometimes this is dizzying…and if I were to say anything critical what I would say is that there were one or two places where I thought the rapid shift move was used one too many times, but let’s not quibble. There is no filler on the disc; every track is killer and obviously the band wanted each tune to be a statement in and of itself. The disc begins with a palm-muted, clean, almost chicken-picked guitar riff that segues into clean thrash and crash with Rush-style keyboard. Guitarist Guthrie Govan has a lot of love for all of the various classic tones he can wring from his axe, but then he’ll rip out something totally futuristic; the affected (with what I don’t know) quick picking legato on the solo to this track, Stupid 7, is pretty intense, yet just long enough to WOW! and then it’s back to the theme. Jack’s Back has a very odd-meter, bluesy vibe to it with some great solos from bassist Bryan Beller and some really tasty lines from Guthrie. Even though there are a lot of different styles to be found on the record, they meld them seamlessly into a singular sound that is very consistent and entertaining.

Texas Crazy Pants reminds me of a bit of 70s Fleetwood Mac multiplied by a factor of 500 with added crunch, UFO sounds and police sirens. The funny story that inspired this song (a lot of the band’s songs are inspired by weird life stuff) can be found online. It’s a great little rockin’ number though; one of the most balls-out on the disc. ZZ Top (yes that’s the name of the song) kind of reminds me of Rush’s Subdivisions, from the early 80s and I mean that in a good way. It’s a cool tune, but I don’t know why it’s named after the little ol’ band from Texas because it doesn’t put anything about that band in my head at all. But maybe it’s a head fake…

The next tune, Pig’s Day Off, is really pretty; a very clean, chordal, dynamic tune that descends into some twisted riffs and Zappa-style ensemble playing. This is one of the songs where the “jamming” is excessive I think…and that’s only because the mellow vibe of the tune is so great that the whole tune could’ve progressed in this manner without everyone going Bates Motel. But I stopped doing acid a long time ago so maybe I’m just too old to really appreciate it as much as I should. Smuggler’s Corridor is the anthem of the disc; a minor key surf rock that has everything but the kitchen sink, including Ennio Morricone-style vocalizing (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Guthrie’s soloing on this tune is nothing short of brilliant; tasteful where it needs to be and completely crazy and off the charts when he cuts loose. Bryan Beller also does a nice little bass solo as well. The rhythm vibe had my girlfriend and cat dancing around the kitchen, which is a sure sign of success.

Pressure Relief has more chicken-palm picking, fast legato runs and an envelope filter/wah tone that is really cool. It also features some nice guitar harmonics, double stops and chords. Guthrie doesn’t use a lot of over-the-top distortion (at least on this disc) and is able to do all of the amazing guitar things he does with a very clean sound, which I think gives the band a more sophisticated and multi-layered presentation. They sound like seasoned professionals playing high-wire instrumental music. The next tune, The Kentucky Meat Shower has a sound and a riff straight outta Nashville y’all… and Nashville is pretty close to Kentucky so I think that’s why it sounds like that. HA! Later in the tune it goes all METAL FACE! It’s pretty funny, which fits the topic of the tune as it is another crazy “real-life” story from long ago. (Guthrie relates the background of the story on YouTube). The final tune Through the Flower is a supremo 11-minute prog-rock ballad that features amazing playing from all three instrumentalists and is a kind of synthesis of everything that has already occurred on the album. It’s a nice wrap up and the tune has a nice riff, great chords and cool use of effects as well. I would rank this tune, Smuggler’s Corridor, Texas Crazy Pants, and Pressure Relief as my favorites but there is something for any prog/fusion guitar head on this album. It’s certainly a great effort from three really awesome musicians and I hope they get back into the studio real soon!

Back to the Future!

It’s time to check in on the hologram industry. If you’ve missed this technological advance in musical performance, I wrote about it last year and predicted that it would lead to: a possible revival of the over-the-hill Rock genre, save the electric guitar, or maybe even launch an all out Skynet-style nuclear attack. Of course, I’m not the only person with an opinion; writers, critics, players and fans are weighing in on this controversial topic…and others are just showing up to watch it.

I had reported in my original post that late metal rocker, Ronnie James Dio’s hologram had rocked the Pollstar Awards, and by all accounts, it was…something. Tour plans were and are in the works, but first “He” had to go back on the drawing board. Kewl! Other stars like Tupac Shakur, who appeared at Coachella in 2012, have already had their moment in post-life stardom…or Stardom from Beyond the Grave! Sounds like a horror movie…and it is! This past spring the late Roy Orbison toured England, at least his hologram did, with an orchestra to boot! Amazing! (No the orchestra was not a hologram) Given Roy’s lack of emotion and movement when performing, he was a good choice for a hologram because most people were not be able to discern they were actually watching technology instead of the real thing. Have a look-see below and judge for yourself! I can’t believe it’s not Roy!

But FEAR NOT!…er other music lovers. This technology is taking the world by storm and no musical genre will escape the tendency and temptation to take what was once a great thing and reduce it to…wackiness and approximation. In January of this year Maria Callas, who died in 1977, returned to Lincoln Center to bellow out the arias from Carmen and Macbeth. Writing in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini related:

“It was amazing, yet also absurd; strangely captivating, yet also campy and ridiculous. And in a way, it made the most sense of any of the musical holograms produced so far. More than rock or hip-hop fans — and even more, you could say, than fans of instrumental classical music — opera lovers dwell in the past. We are known for our obsessive devotion to dead divas and old recordings; it can sometimes seem like an element of necrophilia, even, drives the most fanatical buffs.”

So I guess that means that by 2025 Washington DC or New York City will be home to the Necrophiliacal Center for the Performing Arts because this new industry has nowhere to go but UP! The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa will tour by the end of the year and will feature big stars like Steve Vai and Warren Cuccurullo. This gives whole new meaning to the phrase ROCK IS DEAD, doesn’t it? Well, yes and no. After all, this is a conglomeration of a whole bunch of advanced technology making this happen and we love technology, don’t we kids? Even regular old music (that stuff hardly anyone plays anymore) needs a whole bunch of technology to function in today’s market…. ’cause that’s just how it’s done. The world has embraced this new way of doing things; it has pulled technology to its collective bosom and said, “Yes! (eargasm) this is for me!”

There are some people who just aren’t onboard though. While some of these people may be [Haters] or trolls, there are others who have well-reasoned arguments and legitimate concerns. One such argument (from the inside no less) is that this whole thing is just a cash-grab by people who are no longer capable of really earning it the old-fashioned way, by playing music. (Pfft! Who does that anymore? Anyone?) Another, similar type of argument is that it may be disrespectful, and that could also true. After all, nobody knows what Ronnie, Roy, and Tupac would’ve wanted….well they say they do, but CaChing! My well-reasoned argument against is that there are generations of people out there who aren’t Baby Boomers and these people are really tired of Baby Boomers and their old people smell and personal concerns. I have no idea why people still turn out to see REAL, LIVE (sort of) bands that average 60-70 years of age. I mean seriously, you don’t have anything else to do tonight? Look at this! (It’s really terrible!) I sense a lot of anticipation for the official last Baby Boomer to bite the dust, but if this technology takes off, they’ll be around forever! Not just forever, but FOREVER. Reminding you, yes you, you stupid Millennial and Generation Z, that you don’t know what hard work is, your music sucks and you’ll never be as great as Generation Woodstock/Punk Rock.

So the deeper ramifications of this whole thing become clear. The tech industry is putting this hologram rock together and even though the technology is gimmicky, it’s still early days. Think what the internet was like early 90s. Or before. Imagine where this can go and then it’s not about what’s possible any longer, it’s all about what people will accept. Would everyone go along with creating a digital Pet Sematary? Where anyone can come back and be recreated? If they can do it with Jimi Hendrix or Prince, why not Grandma? Or your true love who was killed in an exploding blender accident at the tender age of 25? As Leonid Bershidsky writes in the NY Post:

“Also, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as an artificially recreated emotional connection. I’d rather remember real conversations with a deceased friend than try to have new ones with a bot trained on his words. And I suspect watching an undead rock hero would be less satisfying than seeing old footage of his or her performance….Perhaps people living today should be asked to put a check mark on a form, next to the one for organ donations, to specify whether they’re OK with being revived as bots and holograms. I’m sure a lot of musicians would do it, and then their fans would know.

The future holds many awesome and terrifying possibilities and holograms are just one avenue. Think of some of the bad things that could come back. Hitler? My God! The Adolf Hitler 2022 World Tour! Live at The Necrophiliacal Center for the Performing Arts Why not? Have you ever read Pet Sematary? Or watched the movie? Yea, okay, so the movie wasn’t very good even though Herman Munster was in it. But hooo! Scary! It’s a scary idea! Stay tuned!

Frank Zappa Gets Hologram-ed!

Frank Zappa, the late, iconic guitarist, composer, writer, multi-media artist and outspoken personality is about to go on tour…nearly 24 years after he passed away. Last month I wrote about the Ronnie James Dio hologram and mused that it would only be a matter of time before this caught on with other “late” rock stars. Looks like that was already in the works…obviously.

One half of the Zappa Family (the Trust), which is the siblings who are not Dweezil, (and yes there is a history of disagreements there) have partnered with Eyellusion“live music’s premier hologram production company” to send Frank’s likeness on tour. What’s interesting about this company is that both Ahmet Zappa and Wendy Dio are part of Eyellusion’s “team”. Wow! That I did not expect.

Steve Vai will be joining in on a few of the Fake Frank shows, Dweezil will not. He shared his thoughts on the whole matter here. There are many related articles at that link if you want to read up on the entire affair.

Here is the official Official Ronnie James Dio Hologram Wacken Performance, you guys! It’s almost as if he is still here! Submit to the future! It’s only a matter of time before all your music will be provided by Skynet!

Cab City Combo

“We’re a Novelty Band!”

The most offbeat and longest-running musical project of my career(!) was with the New York Novelty Rock band, Cab City Combo. Although we’ve never actually broken up, it’s been years since anything new has been recorded and released. The Combo was the brainchild of Paul Rubin and over the years many friends and acquaintances played sessions with the band. The project was strictly a recording affair; no gigs were ever played and for that reason I always looked at the group (especially in the early days) as if it were The Beatles during the Magical Mystery Tour period. Cab City didn’t have to concern itself with the limitations of the stage and was therefore able to use people, instruments, noises, and studio tricks that worked as a one-off in the studio, but would’ve been hard to reproduce live. Unlike many of my other musical projects I was restrained by a guy functioning as the producer of his own music so I had to come up with cool little parts and riffs (if they weren’t already part of the song) and function as part of an ensemble. It was a continuously fun and interesting challenge and I’m ALL about the challenge! It also afforded more trips to the recording studio and I’ve have always LOVED being in the studio. I can’t remember ever having a bad time recording back in those days. We were lucky because we worked with 3 very sympathetic engineers over the span of our career: Jim Fourniadis, Greg Talenfeld, and Gary Knox. They always went the extra mile to indulge Paul’s whims and offered invaluable assistance to get the production to really POP. It certainly helped that they are all boss musicians in addition to being studio wizards. Jim was actually a member of the Combo for the first couple of sessions.

Cab City Combo's Cabbie Road CD

When I was a kid,  The Dr. Demento show was on the radio every Sunday night and for 2-3 hours he would play a dazzling assortment of weird and funny stuff. (Kind of sounds like 1930s but we’re talking early 70s) I used to do homework while well-known, goofy gems like They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Transfusion, Lil Red Riding Hood and Shaving Cream, the song that won many of the top 10 countdowns on the show in those days, played in the background. I think the family bought 1 or 2 KTEL novelty compilations but I don’t remember them getting a lot of attention. Not only was I also discovering rock and roll and more interested in that, but there was something cool about hearing the funny stuff in the context of a radio format. The songs seemed to lose some of their zip on an LP because I knew what was coming. I didn’t think about the whole concept of Novelty again until the early 90s when I was asked by friends if I wanted to play guitar in the Cab City project. I didn’t know Paul at that point, but we did the first session and it was a whole lot of fun. Since Paul was doing Novelty Rock I didn’t think of it as a huge departure from what any of us were playing anyhow and historically this has always been true.  Sam the Sham and the Pharohs are considered by many to be a fine rock n’ roll band as are a host of other bands who recorded songs that are considered novelty-esque,  like The Champs with Tequila and The Kingsmen with Louie Louie. Cab City was kind of carrying on in the same tradition, but Paul’s influences included people like Martin Mull, The Bonzo Dog Band, Frank Zappa, Steve Martin and other twisted luminaries from the 1970s, while Cab City was always a Novelty Project, that definition could be pretty broad at times. Even though the line-up changed for the next session a year or two later, I stayed on and kept doing it…for eleven years. Paul and I had a pretty good working relationship and as time went on our approach to the project changed to something more like Tommy Tedesco or The Wrecking Crew because Rotgutter, the power trio band I was in at the time, became the core of Cab City. As a band we were already super-tight and that allowed all of the Combo recordings to proceed very quickly and smoothly. Dr. Demento actually played the Combo on his show a few times and Paul had a map going on how many people in how many of the US states bought the CDs. While Cab City was never a threat to Weird Al‘s popularity, it was a nice little project and over the years I was able to put down some really cool and varied guitar on a wide range of music. The sessions were totally fun and part of an era that is rapidly disappearing. Today musicians can avoid recording studios and put their music together on laptops and hardly anyone works with tape. Most of the studios we recorded in over the years are gone now, but it was always an education and a blast to be in that environment putting a project together with like-minded people and friends.

The Combo did get some love over the years, including a nice letter and encouragement from Jello Biafra, punk icon and leader of the Dead Kennedys. Because there was always a veneer of punk rock music and sensibilities in Cab City I was convinced that Paul had aspirations to be a punk rock star! Because most of the musicians in the Combo were capable and comfortable doing that and because punk rock is usually humorously irreverent, the combination worked and it appealed to fans of both styles of music. Even when the music didn’t sound like punk, there was usually a twisted, misanthropic attitude to the lyrics that sounded like PUNK ROCK or NEW YORK. The SUV Song is a good example — musically it’s such a pleasant-sounding song and I was going for a very Caribbean guitar thing. Lyrically it was a different story and that juxtaposition and the sing-a-long chorus made it one of the Combo’s more accessible numbers. Two kids in England liked it so much they made a video for the song.

Some of my other favorite Cab City tracks in the above player illustrate the range of different styles involved in the band and what I did guitar-wise. Paul wasn’t a taskmaster by any stretch of the imagination; he actually let the band have quite a bit of room to come up with their own stuff. But he did have certain ideas about what he wanted and didn’t like. This kind of relationship was good for me as it always forced me to focus and try to see outside my own musical parameters. All of the musicians involved had played with each other in some capacity or knew each other so that made it easy to get the music together and record it quickly. Songs like Monkey King, High Entropy and Insulin were pretty close to being POP numbers. Monkey King always felt like a Broadway show tune meets the aforementioned Beatles Magical Mystery Tour-era to me, I don’t know why. Insulin has a phased kind of George Harrison/Eric Clapton “Badge” era thing going on and I do remember Paul having a lot of input into how that solo sounded. What’s funny is that although I was playing through an MXR Phase 90, I didn’t have it turned on, but it sounds like it was. I’m also playing a Rickenbacker 6-string for the strumming part, which is the only time I’ve ever used a Rickenbacker guitar in my life. I’ve never owned one and the one I used (which was really boss!) belonged to the guy who owned the studio. After You Alphonse, which is the comedy gag of more than 1 person trying to get through the door simultaneously, is probably Cab City’s most obvious punk number. Less than a minute long, the guitar approach is: Just PLAY FAST. High Entropy reminds me of Chris Spedding and the couple of years of hanging out with him certainly influenced the cool, laid back riffing on this song, which was sung by Marti J. Cooney, a lady who contributed many fine vocalizations to the Combo over the years. So did Laurie Kilmartin and Maddie Horstman, who does the lead vocals on the next song, Santa Klutz, which was typical of the goofy fun we had making these songs. 4 of us huffed helium out of balloons to make the elf voices and I can still remember us standing around the mic trying to get it right without making each other crack up. Same was true of Lake Pennsylvania, which was a real biatch to record, especially THE SINGING NIXONS vocal parts. The music was real easy and there was also a steel drum added by Jamila Cowie. Cab City usually had special guests come in and contribute and they always performed well. Banned by the Man was surely one of the finest guitar moments of my Novelty career. I took Jimmy Page’s DADGAD tuning and used it on an acoustic and couple of electrics to create an Indo/Persian feel for Paul’s rant on copyright laws. Since The Beatles figure heavily in the rant, I felt that the almost sitar-esque quality of the music worked well. I forget if we planned that or not. I also played bass on the track and used an Echoplex to get the delay/echo effect. Later on I developed this piece further and I think it will show up in it’s entirety on this blog someday. If you wish you can download other CAB CITY stuff HERE.

Cab City Combo released two full-length CDs; compilations of all of the sessions we did over the years and they are STILL FOR SALE! It’s interesting how during the band’s career and since it was shelved, so much of the music business and New York City has changed. In that way listening to these songs for me is a snapshot of a special time in my life. I’m not a fan of any modern novelty music and probably never will be and the fact that I wasn’t a fan even when we were recording allowed me the freedom to just come up with ideas that would fit the songs and vision Paul was trying to put across. All of the other people involved in the core band over the years were total pros, and many are still involved in the music business in some capacity. My first attempt at a jazz song occurred with the Combo and it’s kind of funny that is where I am now — playing music that I originally did as a parody for a Novelty band. The Combo’s parody stuff was really brilliant and someday maybe it will find it’s way on here. If you want to know why it isn’t, listen to Banned By the Man. Perhaps the Combo will do another session in the future, but even if it doesn’t, there is a bunch of great stuff I was happy to be a part of and am pleasantly surprised when I hear it now. I’m not one of those people who dwells on the past or listens to all the music I’ve done on a regular basis, but every once it awhile it’s a nice trip down memory lane and a way of measuring where I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going.