A Look Back at Trout Mask Replica

Captain Beefheart, 1969

Genius has always been a word that gets tossed around a bit too freely, particularly when applied to flash-in-the-pan pop stars. Different people have their own definition of what exactly marks a human being’s contributions above others in a chosen field. To me, genius is best described as a person who breaks boundaries, challenges your perception of the world, and influences others in a positive way. Genius also comes in a variety of avenues…there are literary geniuses, genius-level inventors, and even genius actors. A true genius takes his or her own field and adds something unique to it, something that lives and breathes on its own long after that person has parted from this life. To me, Frank Zappa, for instance, is a musical genius. He worked tirelessly to improve his craft, influenced generations of musicians, and put out a body of work that not only pushed boundaries, but redefined them. If Zappa was a musical genius, than one of his few true peers, Don Van Vliet (best known to the musical world as Captain Beefheart) was a musical madman. A poet, artist, and truly an eccentric character, Van Vliet proved to be the more primitive, gritty foil to Zappa’s more polished style of music composition. With a band that could harness distorted, dissonant, raw, but complex music and Van Vliet’s raging Howling Wolf-inspired voice, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band proved to be one of the most unique and uncompromising acts to emerge from the 60’s LA scene, and that’s truly saying something.

I’ve always had an interest in the bizarre. The records that divide and polarize tend to be the most attractive and interesting to me. Trout Mask Replica (1969) first found it’s way into my life when I was about 13 or 14 years old. At the time, Zappa was my favorite artist and had already expanded my musical horizons to appreciate jazz and experimental, but nothing could prepare me for Trout Mask Replica. I was already familiar with Beefheart and The Magic Band’s debut, Safe as Milk (1967), a very creative blues-influenced record, but Trout Mask Replica was a completely different kind of record. At times, it seemed chaotic, disparate, and random, while other times the band really came together and rocked out with a raw energy rivaling even the most extreme punk music along side a complexity that most progressive rock bands wouldn’t dare attempt. This record proved important to me because it unlocked the world of avant garde music, and when I learned to appreciate the unbridled primitivism this record so unabashedly displayed, my world opened. Trout Mask Replica taught me to question my own definition of music and that music didn’t have to be pretty or even pleasant to be compelling and enjoyable. 

Since then, I’ve discovered a plethora of difficult, bizarre records, but this stands proudly as the deeply strangest record I own or have heard – and this counts other Beefheart records. What makes it stand above them all is in the way cacophony is harnessed and bottled, beaten and whipped into submission. Even on those seemingly random tracks, there is a certain confidence in the way the Magic Band plays them and a certain unflinching, visceral energy that makes this record a refreshing listen. Somedays I listen to this album as an aural palette cleanser for when I’m sick of everything else, as it plays by its own rules, then breaks them. When this record ends, I always feel strangely refreshed, relaxed, and liberated by it’s reckless abandon.

As for the remaster, I’d say it’s a stunning improvement over the older Reprise CD. According to the liner notes, the original master was damaged over time and what we have here is an alternate master, owned by Frank Zappa, who served as producer on this album. Two tracks, however, remain from the damaged original master and one – “Frownland” – really shows it’s age. The drums sound perfectly awful on this track – distorted and almost overpowering, which is a shame, because drummer John “Drumbo” French plays so wonderfully on this and every other track on the record. As for the rest – it’s well worth the money for the upgrade. Bassist Mark Boston (Rockette Morton) really speaks through on this remaster, adding a realm of bottom end that simply wasn’t present on the old CD. I took notice, also, of the clarity of instruments that shine through throughout. For the first time, I could pick out all of the layers of  dueling distorted guitars – provided by Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo) and Jeff Cotton (Antennae Jimmy Semens) – and Victor Hayden’s (The Mascara Snake) bass clarinet felt warm and lifelike. As for the Captain’s raspy, baritone croon, well, it felt like he was standing in the room, belting the lyrics with incredible power. Never before have I respected him as vocalist as I did while listening to this remaster, while his squealing saxophone seemed to rift through my consciousness. Another thing to note is that the CD, while certainly a bit louder than the 90’s disc, is far from brickwalled. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the dynamic range is wider than the older CD, with the spoken parts much quieter than the rest, reflecting the dynamics of the original LP.

It’s certainly a demanding album, but it is also fun to listen to, once you get beyond the inherent strangeness of it all. Through all of its insanity, the Captain retains his bizarre form of wit and the album literally makes me laugh out loud at times. The humor grounds the music and makes it feel a bit more at home, an element which many prog bands are missing. After sitting through the entire 78 minute album, the chaotic songs with the Captain’s surreal freeform poetry are cleverly interspersed among the more ‘straightforward’ songs (if there is such a thing on this album) to give you a place to hang your hat, so to speak. It’s not a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination, but still an unforgettable ride that will make you feel like you’ve traveled somewhere by the time you reach the final, slightly more conventional closing track, which provides a nice place to end. It’s a hard album to recommend, but I think that any true serious music fan’s collection is poorer without it. If you like experimental music, you need this! And the remaster is a real improvement – it really brings out the various layers. Keep your old disc for “Frownland” though. 

So was Van Vliet a genius, or simply a madman? I think a bit of both. With The Magic Band, he created an album that continues to turn the musical world on its ear and inspire debate among listeners. With a unique artistic vision, he managed to compose a piece that challenges a listener’s perception of music, even 45 years after it was released. This, to me, is the mark of a true genius.

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