Friday, June 7, 2013

ALBUM REVIEW: Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica

by Adrian M Denning

Trout Mask Replica (1969, UK pos 21)
Frownland / The Dust Blows Forward N The Dust Blows Back / Dachau Blues / Ella Guru / Hair Pie: Bake 1 / Moonlight On Vermont / Pachuco Cadaver / Bill's Corpse / Sweet Sweet Bulbs / Neon Meat Dream Of A Octafish / China Pig / My Human Gets Me Blues / Dali's Car / Hair Pie: Bake 2 / Pena / Well / When Big Joan Sets Up / Fallin' Ditch / Sugar N Spikes / Ant Man Bee / Orange Claw Hammer / Wild Life / She's Too Much For My Mirror / Hobo Change Ba / The Blimp / Steal Softly Thru Snow / Old Fart At Play / Veteran's Day Poppy

You know sometimes, when two old friends get together? Two old best friends, and they have this little 'thing' between them and are able to bring out certain aspects of each others character?

Well, Captain Beefheart hooked up with his old chum Frank Zappa again, and although would later complain of being marketed as 'a freak', the process of writing, recording and releasing 'Trout Mask Replica' was, if nothing else, hugely artistically successful.

Speaking of producer Frank Zappa's influence, well. Captain Beefheart has reportedly said something along the lines of ... "he just sat in the chair and fell asleep whilst we recorded the album" ... which may actually be true.

There are reports the album was recorded in two four hour sessions, flat out. That may very well be true. There are other rumours the album was written AND recorded in something like twelve hours, which isn't true at all.

The release of the 'Grow Fins' box set revealed 'Trout Mask Replica' rehearsal material, the material here was heavily rehearsed, it had to be for music so strange, challenging and complex.

The entire Magic Band, along with Mr Captain Beefheart, all hooked up in a house for a year or so - with little food, and only one band member was allowed to go out and get supplies at a time.

It was a case of mind control, well, a case of 'control' on the part of Beefheart. Not only that, during 'Fallin Ditch', when Rockette Morton tells us "I run on beans" - he's actually partly telling the truth.

A quote from Drummer/Guitarist John French, aka 'Drumbo' tells us the following ... "I remember once going for a month and all we had to eat every day was one four once cup of soya beans". So, there you go!

The way Beefheart wrote was normally on piano, but seeing as he wasn't really a piano player, he'd only be able to play short phrases. These short phrases were then translated to the rest of the band onto guitar, drums, etc. Which explains partly the fractured, seemingly cut-up then stitched back together again nature of the music, on 'Trout Mask Replica' in particular.

Let's take the opening song 'Frownland'. You've got the sound of a drummer seemingly falling over his drum kit whilst he attempts to play it.

You've got two guitars - neither of which sound like they are played by a musician, rather some chubby fingered oaf who only just that minute had picked up the instrument for the first time in his entire life.

On top of all of this, we have Beefheart himself, seemingly ignoring completely the music behind him - but still managing to fit on top of it, all the same.

Back to the Zappa influence. The field recordings of speech and spoken word, 'semi' music, stuff like 'The Dust Blows Forwards' were likely influenced by Zappa. Zappa was always taping everybody, no matter what they were doing or where they were.

The crude lo-fi, cut-up nature of 'The Dust Blows Forwards' is clearly deliberate, and the words Captain Beefheart sings/speaks out, totally surreal - but the intention of the piece becomes clear with lines such as "the wind blowing up, me" - it's humour, total surreal humour.

Arriving after such a quiet, field recording, 'Dachau Blues' is just scary as all anything. Loud, fractured - then moving off into nearly sensible flowing phrases of graspable melody. Then, a farting trumpet sound arrives. Oh, but of course.

And, the good Captain just seemingly ignores everything and does what the hell he damn well pleases over the backing track. 'Dachau Blues' is a total highlight - the sound is very dark and confusing, the way the music moves off in ten directions at once.

'Ella Guru' showcases the 'Trout Mask Replica' duel guitar sound very well, layers and layers and layers of short melodic phrases played amidst challenging and different time signatures.

Does it really sound like each musician is playing a different song? Well, sometimes it does, sometimes it sounds as if everybody is playing in a different studio oblivious to the other musicians and parts. But, everything eventually falls together, and during certain phrases or sections, the band are playing together and sounding just so f*cking glorious that it beggars belief.

'Moonlight On Vermont' is my favourite ever Beefheart recording. The guitars are biting and aggressive and full of great melodic phrases, the vocals here are just astonishing - and the way the song progresses with so many different sections and short phrases and parts, yet still sounds totally together after repeated listening, just amazing.

'Moonlight On Vermont' is aggressive and scary and meaningful too, the lyrics contain layers and layers and layers of meaning to seemingly be unravelled. And, oh my good god, that "Gimmie that old time religion" section is just so glorious I nearly fall out of my chair every time I hear it.

It fades, the sound of Beefheart plugging back into the blues, into Howlin Wolf mode, but Howlin Wolf never EVER sounded as astonishingly brilliant as this.

I've mentioned but a few of the songs on this album, but believe me when I say that all twenty eight songs on this 70 minute plus album are of the same calibre.

It's tough going at times, the relentless assault can dull your ears, but keep listening and something like the very catchy and almost pop melody of 'Sugar N Spikes' will pop up. Well, a pop melody broken into a dozen pieces then thrown seemingly randomly back together again, but it sounds like the only way anybody should ever make music once you get used to it.

'Trout Mask Replica' is so intense, so full of the character of Don Van Vliet - that it proved a hard act for him to follow.

It generally sounds like somebody throwing around nails and falling over drums and breaking guitar strings and scratching blackboards - against the sound of random nonsense ranting vocals on a first listen. Even on a fourth of fifth listen.

Usually I'd hesitate to give such an album a perfect score, but perseverance reaps especially immense dividends with 'Trout Mask Replica', more so than any other album I can think of.

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