Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica
Straight Records
Avant-Garde, Blues Rock
28 songs (1:19:06)
Release year: 1969
Reviewed by Goat
Archive review

News of the death of Don Van Vliet came this weekend, causing a good deal of sadness in a certain part of the musical world. Who? Well, he was the frontman and mastermind behind Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, who exist in a unique pigeonhole for a very specific sort of music fan, the sort who finds Frank Zappa rather staid and conservative, the sort who thinks Tom Waits is pop music. It’s strange, somewhat annoying music that lacks structure and melody, that rambles along muttering to itself – far, far ahead of its time yet simultaneously very much of it. If there’s one Captain Beefheart album that you should listen to, it’s this, the band’s third full-length and their most famous. Rehearsed over a year, instrumentally recorded in six hours, and produced by Frank Zappa himself, Trout Mask Replica is a double album full of, well, something, a sound between especially deranged delta blues and free jazz, atonal musical arrangements discordantly spazzing along whilst Don Van Vliet himself croons and growls over the top, more like a caricature of Howlin’ Wolf than anything else. John Peel, famed BBC radio DJ known for his love of Extreme Noise Terror, said that “if there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work.” Conversely, John Harris of The Guardian said that it still sounded fucking awful after six listens.

Both are partially right, of course – as influential and interesting as this album is, it’s hardly the Mona Lisa, yet as irritating as I find this album in some moods, in others it suits me perfectly. You could try and figure it out, listen to the avant-garde arrangements and ponder whether they were actually written in advance and rehearsed (as claimed) or made up on the spot. Yet you’re missing the point – this sort of aural absurdity is best appreciated in a state of confused acceptance. Let it all wash over you, leave the pondering to your subconscious and enjoy this as you do the Mr Bungles and more quirky Technical Death Metal bands. 1969 was an important year for metalheads, as with the release of King Crimson’s debut masterpiece In The Court Of The Crimson King heaviness was born from 21st Century Schizoid Man, the idea of utter strangeness and otherworldly atmosphere was born in Trout Mask Replica. It is an extremely important album in our genre’s birth, praised by the modern visionary likes of Devin Townsend, and one of those experiences which everyone should undergo at least once.

So why are you reading about this in the regular section of the site, rather than the Classics? Only someone who hasn’t heard this album would ask that question, because it’s a question that the album answers all by itself. You can’t listen to a piece of music like My Human Gets Me Blues and not come away fundamentally a less sane person, yet you also can’t listen to Hair Pie: Bake 2 and come away with a serious appreciation of the musicianship devolved into such a deranged form. This does not belong in the classics, where anyone can wander by and access genius. This belongs in the archives, buried deep and waiting to be discovered only by the sort of twisted soul who will get genuine pleasure from it. It’s certainly not impossible to enjoy, the twisted jazz of When Big Joan Sets Up having an unusual charm of its own, whilst the a capella The Dust Blows Forward ‘n’ The Dust Blows Back is gently melancholic. Dachau Blues, the strangest song about the Holocaust you’ll ever hear, could have pages written about it alone.

The best description I’ve heard of this album is actually that it’s unlistenable in the same way as War & Peace is unreadable. Isn’t that brilliant? You’re not always in the mood for it, but you know what a masterpiece it is, and that’s exactly the way I feel about Trout Mask Replica. Don Van Vliet deserves mourning for his death, yet in celebration of his genius this album needs celebration, thrown on and enjoyed when you’re able, and tolerated when you’re not. Just keep reminding yourself that both are part of the same experience, and lose yourself in the unrelenting oddness of it all.

Killing Songs :
All or none
Goat quoted 90 / 100
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