Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band - Trout Mask Replica
Before you ask, yes that is a picture of a man wearing a trout mask, although one can only guess as to whether it is only a replica or is indeed real. The cover, however, is but the only literal thing on this entire album for, sounding utterly unlike anything before it, Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band is an astonishing, bizarre and fascinating work that sounds quite unlike anything else, even in Beefheart's own output.
Produced by Beefheart's good friend, Frank Zappa, after the conflicts with producers on previous albums, Trout Mask Replica was fully formed by the time Beefheart brought his band back together to record it, famously dictating the band's parts down a telephone line from his piano before beginning a year's worth of rehearsals prior to entering the studio. The 28-song album, which would have been released on a double-LP but is presented here as a single-CD, is a free roam through the genres of blues, rock, jazz and avant-garde with Beefheart's voice and words often used more as an instrument rather than acting as a traditional vocalist. On three occasions, however, Beefheart's voice stands alone, without an instrumental backing, demonstrating that anything as normal as rules are discarded as soon as you insert the CD and press close.
The album opens with Frownland, which acts as a fair indication of what is to come, being an edgy and sharp rock song with a frenzied jazz influence, over which Beefheart's voice gruffly recalls the sun, sky and dry landscapes of his beloved Mojave desert, sounding like a Howlin' Wolf who's given up on his woman and is retreating to a life on his own. Track Two, The Dust Blows Forward 'N' The Dust Blows Back seeing Beefheart's voice and wonderful lyric set to nothing but the dull thump of a record player hitting a runout groove whilst the following three songs - Dachau Blues, Ella Guru and Hair Pie: Bake 1 - move from funereal blues and garage bump to a wheezing instrumental, showing the richness of the music Beefheart was capable of. In closing with the astonishing Moonlight On Vermont, setting the rise of a full moon to a prickly riff, Trout Mask Replica's ambition becomes clear - this is nothing so much as the towns, cities and wide open spaces of Beefheart's homeland set to the music it brought into being.
The old Side Two opens with the well-known declaration that, "A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast 'n' bulbous. Got me?" before crashing into the almost-funky Pachuco Cadaver and the angular Bills Corpse, both of which begin a long run of songs indicating that Side One was easy-listening compared to what is yet to be heard. From this point on, listeners will hear distant blues (China Pig), frantic jazz (Pena), slippery rock (The Blimp (mousetrapreplica)) and something approaching a sea shanty (When Big Joan Sets Up).
As the album winds to a close, fading away with the woozy blues of Veteran's Day Poppy, listeners will likely be feeling relieved for, as great as this music is, it can be a little too intense and with few clear signposts out of the blurring of genres and themes, hearing this in one sitting can be a confusing and disorientating experience. Indeed, it is only in the breaks from the music that an understanding of one's place in the album becomes clear, be it the tale of taking on some rats that closes Dachau Blues, the fading away of China Pig that is apologised for within the inner sleeve, the recalling of the 'fast 'n' bulbous' quote with The Mascara Snake that opens Pena and the narrative by Rockette Morton that brings the staggering blues of Fallin' Ditch to life. Elsewhere, particularly in the final quarter of the album, the inexperienced listener could find themselves wishing for it all to end but despite the often inaccessible nature of this unique recording, the album's penultimate song, Old Fart At Play, is a tender recollection of Beefheart watching his parents potter around their backyard that remains one of Beefheart's better songs.
Being completely honest, this is monumentally difficult music to appreciate and the average listener will find little here of interest. If nothing else, however, Trout Mask Replica ought to exist if only to demonstrate just how expansive, awkward and emotional rock music can get and whilst it would be unsurprising to find yourself loathing it, it is equally likely that you will return to it time and again but with a more measured approach.
Personally, I prefer to keep a copy of Trout Mask Replica on hand to serve those moments in life when absolutely nothing else will do. Whilst such moments can be few and far between, I can recall at least one occasion annually when it is necessary to hear Beefheart and his Magic Band tear all hell down into such unforgiving music. You'll never hear anything else like it and for that alone, this is an essential album