Review Summary: "This is an eight-sided album. Y'know, they don't happen very often. I had my nerve, didn't I?" - Frank Zappa
Most commonly misunderstood by the Internet, "Läther" is not a compilation album. While it has material previously heard in different mixes, edits and even recordings on other albums, it was actually assembled as the lost Frank Zappa album, intended as the follow-up to Zappa's excellent hard rock driven "Zoot Allures" (1976), a mixture of live and studio recordings, encompassing everything Zappa enjoyed composing -- it has progressive rock compositions, hard rock songs, orchestral chamber music, jazz fusion...but Warner Bros., Zappa's record label, was intimidated by the massive length of the album, intended to be a 4-LP, 8-sided album, an immensely ambitious project for the time. The same year "Läther" was finally released also saw the issue of a similarly ambitious, very long album by "The Artist Formally Known As" Prince. Zappa and Prince actually experienced some similar issues with Warner Bros., and Zappa's legal problems with the record giant arised over the recordings on "Läther", more specifically the ones referencing glam rock singer Punky Meadows.
"Läther", apparently being rejected for its length, was replaced when Zappa edited together a set of albums called "Zappa In New York" (containing some live recordings intended for "Läther", plus other material), "Studio Tan", "Sleep Dirt" and "Orchestral Favorites". Zappa delivered initial masters and artwork for "Zappa In New York", but not only did Warner Bros. violate Zappa's contract by deleting both "Punky's Whips", a song describing drummer Terry Bozzio's homoerotic infatuation with Punky Meadows (leader of the glam group Angel), and further adlibbed references to Punky from fan favorite "Titties & Beer", but after being delivered four new albums, which was supposed to fulfill Zappa's obligation to deliver four albums to the label, Warner Bros. insisted that they were still owed four albums that Zappa already gave them.
Over the course of a chaotic lawsuit, the remaining LPs "Studio Tan", "Sleep Dirt" and "Orchestral Favorites" were released without Zappa's permission and Zappa, in a 1979 "Saturday Night Live" appearance during a "Coneheads" sketch, essentially urged fans not to buy these albums from Warner Bros., who were not paying him royalties for the albums.
After regaining the copyrights to his recordings for the label, the albums were reissued, and Zappa once again began getting royalties for these recordings, but "Läther" was still absent.
"Läther" was officially released by the Zappa Family Trust in 1996, but the lore of the legendary lost album dates back to when Zappa, infuriated by Warner Bros.' lawyers, played the entire album on the radio, urging fans to record it, and it was subsequently bootlegged heavily (as was other albums Zappa premiered on the radio, only to cancel their release following pirate releases: "Crush All Boxes"  and "Chalk Pie" , which contained material that was repurposed for Zappa's "You Are What You Is", "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar" and "Tinsel Town Rebellion").
Like, for example, "Chalk Pie" (a very good unreleased Zappa album), it would be wrong to call this a compilation even though some of the material can be heard on other albums. For all extents and purposes, this album was intended to be the only release of the material featured, until plans changed. Even with the release of the four alternate albums assembled to replace "Läther", "Läther" has a different stylistic approach and focus and functions as its own album, not as a collection of previously existing recordings (as Zappa compilations "Mothermania", "Have I Offended Someone?" and "Understanding America" function).
"Läther" is actually connected, in the style of "Lumpy Gravy" (1968), by a series of improvised dialogue and musique concrete pieces, a little bit of which was repurposed for 1979's "Sheik Yerbouti" ("Whatever Happened to All the Fun In the World?", for example) and intros on the "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar" trilogy of instrumental albums.
Furthermore, pretty much everything on either this album or the set of albums that replaced it, have a different origin and back-story; for example the compositions "Re-gyptian Strut", "Flambay" and "Spider of Destiny" originated in an unproduced stage musical called "Hunchentoot", a sci-fi spoof about a "Queen of Greed" and her horny giant spider companion ("Cheepnis", a song from Zappa's "Roxy & Elsewhere", was originally intended for this musical). Some of the recordings, like "Re-gyptian" came from a Wazoo-esque big band session while some of the other "Hunchentoot" songs came from sessions closely connected to the "One Size Fits All"/"Apostrophe" recordings.
The live recordings came from either the same performance or around the same time, of Zappa's band performing in New York in 1977, including an appearance by famed announcer Don Pardo on "The Legend of the Illinois Enema Bandit".
These performances are split between jazz-fusion, like on "Läther" (also identified as "I Promise Not to Come In Your Mouth"), and "The Black Page #1" and topical hard rock songs; "The Illinois Enema Bandit" relates the strange true crime story of Michael Kenyon, a robber who notoriously broke into College dorms and, while robbing female victims, forced enemas upon them; Zappa's song is performed as a blues number; the symphonic hard rock song "Punky's Whips" describes Terry Bozzio falling in love with Punky Meadows, the lead singer of the androgynous rock band Angel, after confusing Punky for a woman, and inviting Punky to "yank my crank!"
"The Purple Lagoon", from these performances, shows the band more in jazz fusion mode, while "Broken Hearts Are For Assholes" describes gay S&M and "Titties & Beer" imagines a one-track minded biker trying to reclaim his woman, who has been eaten by the Devil, by convincing him that he wants to sell his soul to the Devil (played by Terry Bozzio, who wore a Devil mask in performances of this song), only to shock the Horned One by proclaiming that
he's only interested in Titties & Beer, and nothing else.
From the studio recordings, we have some astounding fusion on "Down in De Dew", "Revised Music for Guitar & Low Budget Orchestra", "RDNZL", "Duke of Orchestral Prunes" and "The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution", which was originally edited in a much shorter version here than what eventually ended up on "Sleep Dirt". "Naval Aviation in Art?" and "Pedro's Dowry" are more informed by Zappa's modern chamber music composition, owing to influences of Edgar Varése, Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern.
The longest cut on the epic album is "The Adventures of Greggery Peccary", a 20-minute progressive rock opera about a "Trendmonger" named Greggery, a talking pig who invents the calender, only to require salvation from "philostopher" Quentin Robert DeNameland, in Zappa's satire of modern philosophers like Immanuel Kant ("Time is an affliction" says Quentin as he urges his followers, televangelist style, to send more money). Not only is it similar in scope to "Billy the Mountain", but also conceptually connected, as Billy himself makes an appearance in the surreal story, which also includes a caravan of hippies having a love-in and, on the musical front, the band imitating a series of radios adjusting frequencies, elements of chamber music and jazz woven in throughout the composition, blasts from roving horn sections and piano motifs, bringing the original 1977 album to a conclusion (the 1996 issue has bonus tracks).
The two and a half hour album might be intimidating to newcomers, but "Läther" encompasses a bold summary of Zappa's musical output, marking the logical progression from the '76 single-LP "Zoot Allures" to bigger projects like "Joe's Garage" (1979) and the "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar" LP series, holding together everything Zappa could do, from chamber and avant-garde music to modern jazz to exciting hard rock. It's got crowd-pleasing profane humor, technically challenging compositions for the jazz and prog-minded *and* symphonies, too. It's an outstanding work. While other "lost" Zappa albums like "Chalk Pie", "Warts & All" and "Crush All Boxes" may have been neglected to the bootleg circuit, "Läther" is now on iTunes. Pick it up for your collection.