Excellent early '80s Halloween gig ...
Frank Zappa's 'The Torture Never Stops' offers few surprises, which is both good and bad for Zappa fans. It's good because of the groundbreaking musical brilliance, the non stop satire and humorous on stage moments and bad - or at the very least wearing - because Zappa fairly bludgeons you over the head with the things that make him so unique.
There are stunning musical moments aplenty, inevitably from the three guitarists in the band, FZ, Steve Vai and Ray White, but also from multi instrumentalist and startling vocalist Bobby Martin who works his socks off, while the tireless percussion work of Ed Mann, and inventive drumming of Chad Wackerman holds it all together. Then there's Tommy Mars's expansive keyboard fills and of course the rock solid bass playing of liner notes contributor Scot Thunes, who curiously is only seen fleetingly. Such is the brilliant musical composite that each band member is worth a mention.
Recorded as two shows at New York's Palladium theatre on Halloween October '81, but editing down to one, this was actually a time when despite selling out big concert venues, Zappa's media profile in the UK was in decline. He also struck out as an indie recording artist and free from CBS indulged in a tidal wave of social and political satire that makes up most of 'You Are What You Is'. But for many UK critics in the early 80's New Wave era and musically uninspiring landscape, Frank's satire was recycled and his targets of TV evangelists, political and social figures (Reagan aside) mattered little to Europeans.
Yet this brilliant if not an anonymous functional unit conjures up some brilliant moments to compensate for the few dips when everyone is busy and playing so intensely that they almost lose sight of the greater picture. But overall 'Torture' provides an engaging 2 hours of music in which Frank himself switches from intense guitar player, physically expressive vocalist and baton wielding conductor to casual cigarette smoker. The latter role provides an outrageous moment as FZ casually smokes his way through a heavy duty Steve Vai solo.
Everything flows as you would image it would with such a great band, but in truth what is missing is the legendary Zappa/audience interaction. Apart from some occasional panty throwing from a suitably attired Halloween audience, it's a case of the band powering their way through new material from the 'You Are What You Is' album. It isn't until a punishing one hour and 26 minutes into the evening that Frank finally talks to the crowd.
And by the end, the response is almost alike a communal outpouring of breath, before a belated warm if not crazy response. It is perhaps a case of too much good stuff with too little pause to take it all in. Also songs such as 'Harder Than Your Husband' lack the original red neck irony of 'the Red Indian of the group' Jimmy Carl Black'. However, when Frank's satire does hit the mark, as on the very prescient lyrics of 'Dumb All Over', he come up with one of the best anti-religion songs ever written, and includes such stark messages such as 'tax the churches' and 'tax the business owned by the churches'.
And of course the best musical moments are well worth waiting for, from the spine tingling opening guitar led instrumental 'Black Napkins' and an all too brief joust with Steve Vai on 'Stevie's Spanking' , to a well handful of Frank's own blistering solos and some incredible 3 and 4 part vocals as on 'Charlie's Enormous Mouth'
Right at the end on one of his best thematic pieces 'Strictly Genteel' from '200 Motels', Frank takes up the baton for an inspiring angular piece that is only slightly marred by the deathly groan of synths. But it's a small criticism of some incredibly complex music. For the most part you can rejoice in the contradictory and ridiculously anarchic, yet supremely well drilled stage act and muscular musical and physical manoeuvres that are somehow anchored by Wackerman and imperceptibly directed by Zappa.
The closing 'Illinois Enema Bandit' is everything guitars fans would want as FZ slices through a bone crunching groove with a piercing solo that stands in juxtaposition to his irreverent 'Enema Bandit' lyrics.
The bonus clips comprise 'Teenage Prostitute', with Bobby Martin providing the high parts and 'City of Tiny Lights' with a stellar performance from Ray White and with Frank in his element on an angular guitar solo. There's also a state of the art, anti-Reagan video on the title track of 'You Are What You Is', all delivered with clumsy perfunctory outro edits. The photo feature includes some audience cone heads, various band members in sepia and a shot of the front of the New York Palladium confirming this was the last of the band's three night stay at the venue.
'The Torture Never Stops' does what it says on the tin, with Zappa unencumbered by anything other than his annoyance with human stupidity. This is a superbly filmed package of his early 80's band and having only enjoyed previous limited availability deserves its 5 stars.
Review by Pete Feenstra