Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band - Trout Mask Replica (1969), 10/10

Trout Mask Replica is a one-of-a-kind experience; that much is certain. The rest, however, is perhaps rightfully debated. Saying it is a difficult first-time listening experience is more than accurate, but the album is also enrapturing. While there is perhaps no flawless or perfect album in rock music, this experimental collage of insanity flirts with holistic transcendence. It is rich with analysis and complexity, virtuosic instrumentation and arrangement, surreal wordplay, self-indulgent humor and passionate poetry. Although there are a laundry list of erroneous myths surrounding this record and its conception, Van Vliet (Beefheart) did in fact write a great deal of the parts for Trout Mask Replica on his recently purchased piano, which he did not know how to play in the traditional sense. Of course to aid the writing process, with an hour of tape at a time, John French (Drumbo) annotated about five minutes of usable melody that Don requested. The Magic Band at this time consisted of a very unique lineup with an odd set of names placed on the band by Van Vliet: Don Van Vliet/Beefheart (vocals, bass clarinet, tenor sax, soprano sax, simran horn, musette), Bill Harkleroad/Zoot Horn Rollo (guitar), Jeff Cotton/Antennae Jimmy Semens (guitar), Victor Hayden/The Mascara Snake (bass clarinet/vocals), Mark Boston/Rockette Morton (bass), and John French/Drumbo (drums) – also Doug Moon playing guitar on “China Pig”, and who could forget Don's high school acquaintance Frank Zappa as producer/engineer. Unfortunately, a lot of the rumors about Van Vliet’s maniacal behavior and manipulation are also true. The band was more akin to a cult than a functioning music group throughout the writing and recording of this album, and at least through Lick My Decals Off, Baby and The Spotlight Kid. Van Vliet created a cult of personality that was driven by an odd mix of charisma, fear and emotional battering, but the band members were so much younger, impressionable, driven by musical vision and saw no way out of the Trout Mask house and its prison-like atmosphere. On the bright side, it resulted in music that more than likely will never be matched in inherent experimental bravery, performance mastery and irrationally strict dedication from all members involved.

As an experience, the record progressively becomes more enjoyable, revealing meaningful detail and substance with each listen. It is the purest form of what makes avant-garde rock music so special, and it is one of the most creative works available. Not only that, but the album truly inspires obsession, which explains its long-standing place in the greats of experimental music. The instrumental virtuosity of the band is apparent quickly, but more nuance in performance seems to be revealed with each turn. Again, it is a record that is better with invested time and patience, perhaps even an individualized analysis and an understanding of its messages and motifs to be enjoyed to its full potential. The tracks with something familiar to grab onto are certainly the most enjoyable for a newcomer, but they all become magically endearing with repeated listens. An open mind and a healthy sense of humor are necessary, yet the experience crashes and sways in waves of musical revelation. Trout Mask Replica has had a tremendous impact on so many artists it is impossible to track through the progression of rock music, but its impact is undeniable. The reason for this influence is largely because of the brave approach to re-inventing rock music and abandoning the existing formula yet branching out in a completely novel direction apart from artists slowly inching forward alongside its release in the late sixties. This all begins with one of the most notorious songs on the album and in modern music, presented as the opener for this roller coaster of an album where musically, things begin with a bang. The first thing you may notice at the start of “Frownland” is the asynchronous repeating patterns. For example: the first guitar is playing in 7/4 while the second guitar plays in 5/4. These two parts will sound arrhythmic until they meet one another at a touch point, during which they will share rhythm and should share some tonality, resulting in a brief moment of synchronous melody and relief from what otherwise sounds dissonant. There is a fantastic YouTube analysis of this song by composer Samuel Andreyev worth visiting. He also has some fantastic interviews with each member of The Magic Band from this era that shed great light on some lesser-known truths about not only the band’s dynamic/creative process, but also the music itself. Don’t forget that each of these songs is fully annotated by Drumbo and each part memorized by the band members.

These rhythmic experiments are a relatively consistent theme, although it is appropriately the most obvious and extreme in the first track of the record. The experimentation is extended into Don's poetry and vocal properties, the potential of instrumental sounds with metal picks and cardboard covered drums, and recording vocals and horns separately from the music. After the opener, we immediately launch into a purely spoken word track in “The Dust Blows Forward 'n the Dust Blows Back”. Not only is it a spoken word poem, but the creative choice to leave in mistakes and stutters enhances the story-telling atmosphere of the record, and this will continue throughout, particularly on the other spoken word pieces and novelty sections. It is a very fun piece to recite along with Don. “Dachau Blues” then provides some brutal imagery and a strong statement regarding tragedy and the cycle of history. While Beefheart’s vocals are most definitely front and center (and mixed incredibly loud, thanks Frank), the instrumental is perfectly and appropriately chaotic. Then comes perhaps the most accessible track in “Ella Guru”. While simpler, it is just as intoxicating if not more so than the rest of the first side of the record. The message is simple, but the delivery is perfectly executed both by Don and the band. Both “Hair Pie: Bake 1” and ”Hair Pie: Bake 2” provide some of the more surreal experiments akin to Mirror Man’s psychedelia with an influx of what amounts to elements of free jazz and a much more successful composition style in comparison to their other work. Another standout track, “Moonlight on Vermont” exhibits some of Don’s more conventional songwriting, as it was written before the band occupied the Trout Mask house, along with “Sugar n’ Spikes” that shares a similar writing style; separate from the rest of the album. This explains the change in atmosphere and why many fans of Safe as Milk or Strictly Personal may lean towards these types of songs as their favorites. My personal favorite introduction comes from “Pachuco Cadaver”. The beginning of this song perfectly exemplifies the asynchronous patterns from songs like “Frownland” in almost dictionary definition form. The guitar, bass and drums all play differing time signatures and meet at superbly satisfying touch points. Don then proceeds with some pretty on-the-nose, but still greatly entertaining sexual imagery.

New listeners will get a respite during “China Pig”, a guest performance from Doug Moon on guitar, and a song that sounds like it was recorded on a portable cassette recorder... because it was. These recorders had just been released at the time which explains the absurdly low audio quality akin to recording a performance in another room of the house. Still, it is a more traditional blues track apart from Don’s playful snorting throughout. Another very strong composition, both lyrically and instrumentally, comes through in “My Human Gets Me Blues”. The instrumental is again polyrhythmic and dense, but the vocal performance is perhaps even more striking than anything we’ve heard so far. While superbly entertaining, “Pena” is more of a novelty piece than a musical highlight. I’m with Drumbo’s assessment in that while I find it mostly fun and exuberant, it can also be grating, especially after you've heard it so many times. “When Big Joan Sets Up”, however, is most certainly a performance highlight from every member of the band, and has some outstanding moments of interplay that are uncommon in such a broad album. Not only do we get the trademark humor, but a wonderfully manic sax solo and a catchy set of hooks from the band, another song with seemingly endless riffs jammed against one another. A brilliantly placed sea shanty comes in “Orange Claw Hammer”, an undeniably poetic prose piece from Van Vliet. The last side is perfectly rounded out by the epic and metallic “Steal Softly Thru Snow” and the perfect conclusion in “Veteran’s Day Poppy” and its surprisingly modern sounding conclusion, sounding like a post hardcore riff. I recommend reading Drumbo's book Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic for an in depth background on the band throughout the early years and through the creation of this album. All of that said, Trout Mask Replica was an incredibly ambitious recording, particularly for 1969, and its influence cannot be overstated. It still holds its ground as one of the most unique, idiosyncratic and progressive, forward-thinking records of all time. Its conception has just as unique a story as the music itself, yet purely the freshness of the music itself is what has helped it stay relevant for decades. The album's influence is so vast that it is an almost unavoidable piece of music, reaching across genres in its impact and providing an unshakeable giant of experimentation.