Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect – as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. For today’s Vinyl Corner, we’re pitting two versions of Frank Zappa’s jazz fusion classic ‘Hots Rats’ against each other and seeing which comes out on top. We’ll be doing the same with his satirical late ’60s doo-wop extravaganza ‘Cruising With Ruben And The Jets’ soon as well, so keep your eyes peeled for that.
With over sixty albums released during his all-too-short lifetime, Frank Zappa was not an artist who could ever have been accused of slacking off. Given the breadth of ambition and diversity throughout his work, any attempt to reach a consensus on his “best” album is doomed to fail. Even so, plenty would point to 1969’s ‘Hot Rats’ – a very strong outing indeed. It’s an almost fully instrumental set, but Zappa does employ the larynx of frenemy Captain Beefheart on the ten minute blues-jazz workout of ‘Willie The Pimp’. Elsewhere, it’s Zappa’s idiosyncratic flare for composition that shines through the brightest, as well as the various musicians’ virtuosity on their chosen tools of the trade. The wonky charm of ‘Little Umbrellas’ showcases his unique rock/avant-classical styling as well as anything he ever penned, and the near thirteen minute freakout of ‘The Gumbo Variations’ manages to retain a typically Zappa-esque degree of cohesion. Despite its extended run time and enthusiastic jamming, it boasts a sense of focus that few other jazz fusion combos of the time could manage.
For the sake of some healthy competition, we’re going to be comparing a 1969 UK 1st pressing against the reissue that the Zappa Family Trust released back in 2016. The original pressing remains in excellent condition, so comparing the two is a fair test even fifty years on from the album’s release. However we’ll be primarily focusing on the sonics of the two versions rather than pressings and playback quality, as it’s hardly fair to compare the surface noise of a half-century old LP with that of one produced less than three years ago. Zappa was famed for his perfectionism and even in 1969 – a time when the phrase ‘audiophile’ was likely to have earned you a few funny looks – his albums almost always sounded excellent, if not superb. True to this, the original UK issue of ‘Hot Rats’ presents a compelling argument; it rolls out a strong top end, with forthright percussion and detailed guitars. The organ is full and rich, and the general soundstage is hefty without becoming overblown. Sonically, this original issue has a lot of kick – as was popular at the time.
Like so many Zappa albums, ‘Hot Rats’ is a complex piece of work and less than stellar sound would come at the cost of most of the music’s detail. It’s thankful, then, that the original issue puts forward a strong argument. But how about the 2016 reissue? Well, first, a quick word on the pressing: it’s superb. Manufactured by Germany’s brilliant Pallas, the noise floor is low, surfaces are clean and vinyl is weighty. You really couldn’t ask for more. Remastered by Bernie Grundman back in 2008, this pressing actually uses the same plates as a far rarer Classic Records reissue from 2009 – a highly respected release that tends to fetch anywhere from £50 to £100. Considering the value placed on this Grundman remaster then, it should come as no surprise that this 2016 boasts stunning sound – especially for the entirely reasonable price that it can be acquired for (if you shop around, it shouldn’t cost more than £15 or so).
On a side-by-side comparison with the UK original, sonics are surprisingly similar in many ways. The body of the sound is broadly the same and both boast a rare degree of detail. The two satisfy as listening experiences and mark fantastic ways to hear ‘Hot Rats’. Despite this, subtle differences between the two do make themselves apparent over the course of the album. The chattering percussion that already impressed on the original issue only surpasses itself on the reissue, with incredibly lifelike detail coming out to provide something almost unnervingly like being in the recording studio. Brass and violins have more bite to them on this version, and Grundman manages to bring out more detail without overexposing the instruments to the point of harshness. In terms of overall impact, there is slightly less kick on this version. If heard outside of the context of a comparison with an original UK issue it’s unlikely that even thorough listeners would realise this but when A/B’d with an original, the reissue does sound slightly reserved at points. It’s something of a case of the original’s brawn versus the reissue’s brain, then; the 1969 UK pressing is more visceral, but the 2016 reissue is more detailed. Our preference? The 2016 reissue, but only slightly. These two issues are not worlds apart and the reissue does not blow the original release out of the water, but it does tangibly improve upon it in a way that remains respectful to Zappa’s original vision for the album.
Where the differences between the original release and reissue were subtle in regards to mastering, they are anything but as far as packaging and presentation are concerned. Both editions are housed in gatefold sleeves, but the reissue takes the cake with ease. There is, of course, the slight niggle of a barcode on the back cover (not a factor on the original release) but this is more than made up for by the far thicker spine and much sturdier build quality on the reissue. The original UK sleeve is construed from fairly flimsy card (as many UK albums of the time were) and attempting to find one unaffected by shelf and edge wear is a trial in itself. The reissue is also on considerably heavier vinyl and is included in a high quality polylined sleeve by default. One area in which the original does surpass the reissue in the label design. Zappa scholars will know that the original UK releases from around this time were released on the “tri-colour steamboat” design from Reprise Records. It’s a label famous to collectors and for good reason: it’s an aesthetically pleasing, immediately recognisable design. The reissue features different labels on both sides, one replicating the design of Zappa’s eponymous label set up during the ’80s and the other styled after Barking Pumpkin, his other label from the same decade. Neither will win any beauty awards and nerdier fans may find themselves irritated by the anachronistic incongruity of a 1969 album featuring labels designed in the ’80s, but it’s a small irritation at most.
‘Hot Rats’ is a classic, and one that was recorded so well in the first place that both versions we’ve looked at boast great sound. Ultimately, however, the 2016 reissue pips the original to the post in most respects. Bernie Grundman’s mastering is deeply impressive and packaging also benefits from more thorough manufacturing. The affordability of the reissue compared with scarce and expensive original pressings is also a big plus for the price-conscious.
Enjoyed this feature? We’re always looking for further albums to highlight on Vinyl Corner – and if you have a vinyl release that you’d love to see written about here, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org – it would be great to hear from you!