Album: Trout Mask Replica
Artist: Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
Released: June 16th, 1969
Highlights: Frownland, Moonlight on Vermont, Pachuco Cadaver, When Big Joan Sets Up, Steal Softly Thru Snow, Veteran’s Day Poppy
Over the years that have passed since its release, much has been said and written about “Trout Mask Replica”. The truest of all assessments, however, came from the immortal John Peel. In general terms, the radio presenter claimed that within the pantheon of pop music – a realm which he knew better than pretty much everyone else – the third record by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band was the closet the medium had ever gotten to producing a work that could qualify as art in the sense that people involved in other artistic fields would see it and perceive it as such. And it is quite easy to visualize the accuracy that lies behind that claim, because unlike any other album save for, perhaps, Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music”, “Trout Mask Replica” is devoted to pushing the traditional musical format to its limit, with the difference between both works lying in how the former does it by breaking into sheer noise, while the latter – more interestingly – gets there by staying grounded in actual tunes.
Like the provocative piece of art that it is, “Trout Mask Replica” sits idly, stares into the eyes of its audience, and dares to be analyzed. Is it being serious? Is it mocking those that have stopped to look at it? Does it hide some sort of hidden message that can only be unlocked by one who goes through it multiple times? The answer is impossible to know. What is unavoidable, however, is that “Trout Mask Replica” holds the amusing ability of making anyone who decides to talk about it look absolutely silly. If hailed as a masterpiece, the evaluator will come off as a pretentious fool that is trying to look smart. If labeled as an utter disaster, the reviewer will be accused of being a contrarian seeking to stir some controversy. And if graded somewhere in the middle, that means “Trout Mask Replica” was treated just like any other album, which is a downright wrong way to approach it. It effectively unmasks the beholder, making any opinion concerning it reveal more about the individual that formulated the analysis than about the record itself.
In contemporary terms, therefore, “Trout Mask Replica” is the equivalent of an extremely skilled troll; engaging it is a no-win scenario. To create this monster, as it has often been related, Captain Beefheart went to absurd lengths, reportedly locking himself up alongside his band-mates inside a rented house for eight months in order to rehearse the compositions. By itself, that interval already seems sufficiently gruesome; it gains even darker contours, though, when one learns that period included financial trouble, with the group living on a subsistence diet; fourteen-hour workdays; a cult-like environment; as well as both physical and mental abuse, given Captain Beefheart was not shy to berate or assault his peers when they made mistakes or failed to perform up to his standards.
The attacks were, needless to say, totally unnecessary and deplorable. Yet, listening to “Trout Mask Replica” leads one to see some sense behind the insane intensity of the rehearsals, because it certainly takes a while for the mind of a musician – very much accustomed to a series of rules and structures related to the discipline – to be able to break away from those vices and access the musical madness achieved in the album. There is logic to “Trout Mask Replica”. similarly to its predecessors, it is firmly grounded in blues, filtering the genre through a considerably demented lens; likewise, the loose nature of its playing and singing nods to the improvisational characteristics of free jazz. It is right there, though, that any traces of reason cease to exist, for after using those two pillars as a form of propulsion, the album is left to glide through the unknown according to its own twisted whims.
“Trout Mask Replica” is dissonant, loud, and obnoxious. It does not attempt to harmonize. It rarely tries to create a piece that gets close to the widespread definition of what a song is. And it is generally unpleasant to listen to. As if to augment the potency of the instigation it blatantly aims for, it presents all of those characteristics through a running time (seventy-eight minutes) that is extreme and a number of tracks (twenty-eight) that is usually reserved for records that possess notable stylistic variety, like The Clash’s “Sandinista” or The Beatles’ “White Album”. Very differently from those, though, “Trout Mask Replica” could not care less about any sort of flexibility, because its concern is to blindly pound away with deformed blues licks, often built on top of each other, and simultaneous beats whose lack of uniformity create a cacophonous polyrhythmic mess.
It is so primal and chaotic that listeners unaware of the history behind the record’s production are likely to think of “Trout Mask Replica” as the output of sessions in which the musicians improvised irrationally and furiously. After all, no sane mind could possibly write these tunes intentionally and no rock band could practice enough to reproduce these songs like a well-oiled machine. But Captain Beefheart, in the numerous forms of art he used to express himself, never operated within normal standards; and his Magic Band were very proficient individuals that not only shared the wild artistic openness of their leader, but that were also molded into the unlikely creature that gives life to “Trout Mask Replica” through despicable tyrannical brutality.
As the group bangs and organically adds shifts to the grooves of the album, Captain Beefheart, like a shaman urging spirits of the other world to appear with more intensity, throws fuel into the fire with his howling voice and manic woodwind playing. In both cases, the dissonance arising from what the band is playing and what Don Van Vliet is doing is blatant; it is as if the singing and multiple saxophone solos that appear through “Trout Mask Replica” were edited from other songs and carelessly pasted over the base of the tracks. That effect is especially notable in relation to the vocals, which are mixed way louder than the instruments, a calculated move that strongly highlights the incompatibility of the elements, partially clouds the absurd complexity of what the band is playing, and sheds a strong light on the bizarre nature of Captain Beefheart’s lyrics, which tread a unique line of complex imagery, psychedelia, and – of course – tongue-in-cheek humor.
There is a lot going on in “Trout Mask Replica”, and almost none of it can be traced to what came before Captain Beefheart’s most notable album. Simultaneously, and as the greatest statement regarding its uniqueness, it is equally nigh impossible to link the record to any music that has followed it, in spite of how many artists point to it as a source of either inspiration or admiration. The greatest gift “Trout Mask Replica” gave the world was radically questioning the formats and thresholds that are applied to popular music; it pushed those boundaries so considerably that the wildest instances of experimentation can be safely conducted with a lot of room to spare. And amidst its sheer weirdness – one filled with spoken-passages, sound collages, random screams, absurd wordplay, and a lot of calculated blues-based banging – the album walks through the amusing and the annoying; the thrilling and the dull; and the satisfying and the puzzling. It is, concomitantly, a steaming pile of trash and a transcendental experience: there is a lot of space in-between, but it is awfully hard to fit “Trout Mask Replica” in it. Unless, of course, you have no idea what to do with it.