Trout Mask Replica: Reviews
Rolling Stone 1969
Captain Beefheart, the only true dadaist in rock, has been victimized repeatedly by public incomprehension and critical authoritarianism. The tendency has been to chide C.B. and his Band as a potentially acceptable blues band who were misled onto the paths of greedy trendy commercialism. What the critics failed to see was that this was a band with a vision, that their music, difficult raucous and rough as it is, proceeded from a unique and original consciousness.
This became dramatically apparent with their last album. Since their music derived as much from the new free jazz and African chant rhythms as from Delta blues, the songs tended to he rattly and wayward, clattering along on weirdly jabbering high-pitched guitars and sprung rhythms. But the total conception and its execution was more in the nature of a tribal Pharaoh Sanders Archie Shepp fire-exorcism than the ranting noise of the Blue Cheer strain of groups.
Thus it's very gratifying to say that Captain Beefheart's new album is a total success; a brilliant, stunning enlargeme and clarification of his art. Which is not to say that it's in any sense slick, "artistic" or easy. This is one of the few bands whose sound has actually gotten rawer as they've matured - a brilliant and refreshing strategy. Again the rhythms and melodic textures jump all over the place (in the same way that Cecil Taylor's do). Beefheart singing like a lonesome werewolf screaming and growling in the night. The songs clatter about - given a superficial listening they seem boring and repetitious. It's perhaps the addition of saxophones (all played by the five men in the band) that first suggests what's really happening here and always has been happening in this group's music.
On "Hair Pie Bake One," for instance, the whole group gets into a raucous wrangling horn dialog that reveals a strong Albert Ayler influence. The music truly meshes, flows, and excites in a way that almost none of the self-conscious, carefully crafted jazz-rock bullshit of the past year has done. And the reason for this is that while many other groups have picked up on the trappings of the new jazz, Cap and the Magic Band are into its essence, the white-hot stream of un-"cultured" energy, getting there with a minimum of strain to boot. This is the key to their whole instrumental approach, from the drummer's whirling poly- and even a-rhythmic patterns (compare them to Sonny Murray's on Ayler's Spiritual Unity or Ed Blackwell's on Don Cherry's Symphony For Improvisers), to the explosive, diffuse guitar lines, which (like Lou Reed's for The Velvet Underground or Gary Peacock's bass playing on Spiritual Unity) stretch, tear, and distend the electric guitar's usual vocabulary with the aim of extending that vocabulary past its present strictly patterned limitations - limitations that are as tyrannically stultifying for the rock musician today as Charlie Parker's influence was for the jazzmen of the late Fifties.
I mustn't forget the lyrics. You certainly won't; the album on a purely verbal level is an explosion of maniacal free-association incantations, eschewing (with the authentic taste that assassinates standards of Taste) solemn 'poetic’ pretensions and mundane, obvious mono-syllabic mindlessness. Where, for instance, have you heard lyrics like these; "Tits tits the blimp the blimp / The mother ship the mother ship / The brothers hid under the hood / From the blimp the blimp…. all the people stir / ‘n the girls' knees tremble / 'n run 'n wave their hands / 'n run their hands over the blimp, the blimp…".
The double record set costs as much as two regular albums, but unlike most of these superlong super-expensive items it's really sustained, and worth the money, which is perhaps not so much to pay for 27[sic] songs and what may well be the most unusual and challenging musical experience you'll have this year.
Rolling Stone -1970
Zappa has always had a great admiration for his old friend from Lancaster - an admiration often bordering on worship. Like so many of those around Beefheart, Zappa considers the man to be one of the few great geniuses of our time. When the smoke had cleared from the Blue Thumb snafu, Zappa came to Beefheart and told him that he would put out an album on his label, Straight Records. Whatever Beefheart wanted to do was O.K. and there would be no messing around with layers of electronic bullshit.
The result was Trout Mask Replica, an album which this writer considers to be the most astounding and most important work of art ever to appear on a phonograph record. When Beefheart learned of the opportunity to make an album totally without restrictions, he sat down at the piano and in eight and a half hours wrote all twenty-eight songs included on Trout Mask. When I asked him jokingly why it took that long, he replied, "Well, I'd never played the piano before and I had to figure out the fingering." With a stack of cassettes going full time, Don banged out "Frownland," "Dachau Blues," "Veterans' Day Poppy," and all of the others complete with words. When he is creating, this is exactly how Don works --- fast and furious. "I don't spend a lot of time thinking. It just comes through me. I don't know how else to explain it." In his box of cassettes there are probably dozens of albums of Trout Mask Replica quality or better. The trouble is that once the compositions are down it takes him a long time to teach them to his musicians. In this case it took almost a year of rehearsal.
Trout Mask Replica is truly beyond comparison in the realm of contemporary music. While it has roots in avant-garde jazz and Delta blues, Beefheart has taken his music far beyond these influences. The distinctive glass finger guitar of Zoot Horn Rollo and steel appendage guitar of Antennae Jimmy Semens continues the style of guitar playing which he has been developing from the start. It is a strange cacophonous sound --- fragmented, often irritating, but always natural, penetrating and true. Beefheart himself does not play the guitar, but he does teach each and every note to his players. The same holds true for the drums. Don does not play the drums but has always loved unusual rhythms and writes some of the most delightful drum breaks in all of music. On Trout Mask Replica Beefheart sings 20 or so of his different voices and blows a wild array of post-Ornette licks through his "breather apparatus" --- soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone and musette. When Beefheart inhales before taking a horn solo, all of the oxygen in the room seems to vanish into his lungs. Then he closes his eyes, blows out and lets his fingers dance and leap over the keys. The sound that bursts forth is a perfect compliment to his singing --- free, unrefined and full of humor. Trout Mask is the perfect blend of the lyrics, spirit and conception that had been growing in Don Van Vliet's mind for a decade. Although it is a masterpiece, it will probably be many years before American audiences catch up to the things that happen on this totally amazing record. For the first time in his career, Beefheart was entirely satisfied with his album. Zappa had made good his promise to give him the freedom he required and in fact issue the record in a pure and unaltered form.
Nevertheless, the Beefheart/Zappa relationship is presently anything but an amicable one. Beefheart claims that Zappa is promoting Trout Mask Replica in a tasteless manner. He does not appreciate being placed on the Bizarre-Straight roster of freaks next to Alice Cooper and the GTO's. He constantly complains that Straight Records' promotion campaign is doing him more harm than good. Straight Records on the other hand claims that Beefheart's problems are all of his own making. He refuses to go on tour and procrastinates about making a follow-up album. "What can we do?" a Straight P.R. man asked me. "Beefheart is a genius, but a very difficult man to work with. All we can do is try to be as reasonable as possible." Straight's brass recall that during the recording of the parts of Trout Mask which were done in Beefheart's home, Don van Vliet asked for a tree surgeon to be in residence. The trees around the house, he believed, might become frightened of the noise and fall over. Straight refused to hire the tree surgeon, but later received a bill for $250 for such services. After the sessions were over Beefheart has hired his own tree doctor to give the oaks and cedars in his yard a thorough medical check up --- his way of thanking them for not falling down. In another classic story of this sort, Herb Cohen of Straight recalls that one day he noticed that Beefheart had ordered 20 sets of sleigh bells for a recording session. Cohen pointed out that even if Frank Zappa and the engineer were added to the bell ringing this would account for only 14 sleigh bells --- one in each hand of the performers. "What are you going to do with the other six?" he asked. "We'll overdub them," Beefheart replied.
Los Angeles Times - 1983
Don (Captain Beefheart) Van Vliet was among the most challenging and idiosyncratic of artists to come down the pike in the '60s. Drawing his influences from the blues, free jazz and the avant-garde, he made music and poetry that was at once freakish and tradition-bound, nonsensical and intellectual, recalcitrant and disciplined-contradictions that kept his work consistently compelling from his early days right through his still-lamented retirement from recording in the '80s. "Trout Mask Replica," his fourth album, is perhaps his most celebrated. The two-record set was produced by Frank Zappa, his childhood chum and musical benefactor. Often repellent but undeniably evocative song/poems such as "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish," "Old Fart at Play" and "Orange Claw Hammer" reach out like acid nightmares or scenes from some early unseen John Waters film. The music is dense and frenzied: Van Vliet's saxophone wails, and fractious time signatures and demented compositions reveal debts to Ornette Coleman, John Cage and Zappa without ever losing their original, visionary qualities. Some may find the album so disturbing as to be unlistenable, but it is a manifestation of forethought and precision masquerading as anarchy: Van Vliet and his Magic Band knew exactly what to play, where to play it and why it works.