I guess Hot Rats is kind of generally known as the Zappa album that people that hate Zappa love. I guess I’m not that far off the beam with that. On into the seventies and eighties, I find a lot to love with Zappa, but this is certainly the only of his albums from the sixties that I’ve really been able to tolerate. And this is probably about the biggest leap in terms of my experience of an artist’s music I’ve ever had. Because Hot Rats isn’t just a great album; it’s one of THE great albums. If you set aside Captain Beefheart’s vocal stylings on the first two minutes of Willie the Pimp, and believe me you certainly should set them aside, this album is instrumental and only has six tracks. Of those six, there’s only one, the album closing It Must Be a Camel, that I’m not really high on. The other five are, as far as I’m concerned, all absolutely great, four stars music. The album opens with the lovely and tantalizingly short Peaches en Regalia and then moves on to the nine minute Willie the Pimp, which features some astoundingly great violin work from Don Harris. It’s also the song where Zappa really finally comes into his own as the guitar virtuoso that he was. His guitar work on this song in particular is nothing short of brilliant. There’s a lot of other great Zappa stuff that I’ve heard and I have a lot more of his stuff to hear, but I’m already suspecting that the thirteen minutes or so of Peaches & Willie may be the greatest run of Zappa’s career. Even a genius would be hard pressed to come up with thirteen minutes of music as consistently great as these two tracks. Son of Mr. Green Genes is a great instrumental work out of Mr. Green Genes, which is easily the best track, not that this is saying much, on Uncle Meat. The Gumbo Variations is in the vein of Willie the Pimp, but even longer, so I loved that. And I even find Little Umbrellas, a very short and mostly overlooked track from the middle of the album, to be really charming and beautiful in a jazzy, unassuming kind of way. Zappa had got himself into quite a cul-de-sac with his philosophies about experimentation and assaultive music, but he bursts out of that dead end street like a man possessed on this album. Hot Rats is just nothing short of breathtakingly great; it’s an album that I honestly think I could listen to every day for the rest of my life and never get tired of it. It’s constantly revealing something new, all while inhabiting some great riffs, great solos and, maybe most surprising of all, some genuinely beautiful and catchy melody lines. The last track, as I said above, doesn’t quite achieve the heights of the first five, but those first five are, in my opinion, basically perfect, as close as music gets anyway. I don’t know if it was seen as a betrayal by the fanbase that loved him for his raucous experimentation or not, but it’s a gift to those of us who find his earlier stuff wrong-headed. Well, a gift to everyone, I should say. Hot Rats is nothing but a masterpiece. 4 stars.
tl;dr – mostly instrumental, beautifully crafted pieces of music demonstrate brilliant musicianship and a raw intensity that’s moving and compelling; a masterpiece. 4 stars.