Review Summary: One of the most focused and accessible albums that Captain Beefheart ever released and certainly one of his best.
If ever there was an artist whose output sums up the word "eclectic" it would be Don Van Vliet, more commonly referred to by his stage name Captain Beefheart
. Whether you believe that the man was a genius and a visionary or merely an overrated buffoon, there is no doubt as to his abject refusal to play by the rules. Such is the reputation of his bizarre musical experiment entitled "Trout Mask Replica", which was released to a generally dumbfounded audience in 1969, it is often the first place someone will go who is unfamiliar with his work. A common reaction to the album is one of unbridled hatred and a vow to never go near his music ever again. This is unfortunate because this often maligned piece of work is quite far removed from the main bulk of his material which, while still being admittedly quirky and rather bizarre, is rather more accessible.
After losing his way during the early to mid 1970's Beefheart assembled a new virtuoso "Magic Band" featuring future Pixies member Eric Drew Feldman, guitarist Gary Lucas, and old sidekick John "Drumbo" French on drums. The revitalised ensemble released the well received "Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)" in 1978. Fuelled by the positive reaction to this album he went on to record "Doc At The Radar Station" which was released to favourable reviews in 1980. The musical landscape at the time was of course dominated by punk rock and the looming onset of the new wave but Beefheart was anything but a conformist and refused to embrace the contemporary norms. What we have here is a selection of lean and abrasive Delta blues influenced rock songs infused with shifting rhythms, unequal phrase lengths and jagged riffs, all stamped with Beefheart's indelible brand of craziness and humour. If you told someone they could tap their foot to a catchy Beefheart tune after they had just listened to "Trout Mask Replica" they would probably laugh in your face. Stick on the album opener "Hot Head", with its relentlessly infectious groove and angular stomping rhythm propelled by an inexorable Drumbo-like beat, and they might just be convinced. The song exhibits subtle shifts in meter that induce an unresolved quality to the music which drives it along as a suitable backdrop for Beefheart's characteristic barks and growls. The vicious slide guitar attacks that permeate the music also serve to enhance the overall feel of unhinged aggressiveness.
Beefheart was renowned for his eccentric and often baffling way with words and this album certainly doesn't disappoint in that respect. At the most conventional end of his particularly warped lyrical spectrum his words do lend themselves to an attempt at interpretation. However, when confronted with lines such as "Brickbats fly at my fireplace, Upside down I see them in the fire, They squeak and roast there, Wings leap across the floor, Fold up the wall shadows, The window curtain ghost" on the chaotic jazz laced avant-garde number "Brickbats" one can only wonder at what the hell he is going on about. Whether the lyrics make sense or not, it's hard not to admire the sheer conviction in Beefheart's delivery. Blessed with a four-and-a-half octave vocal range, he rants, growls and shrieks his way through the album highlight "Sheriff Of Hong Kong" with aplomb. This is a maelstrom of raging intensity, full of syncopated rhythms, shifting time signatures and wild mutating riffs which nevertheless manages to maintain a coherent groove throughout its impetuous six and a half minutes.
This is an angry, intense album with untamed rhythm lurches and restless tempo shifts which act to keep the unwary listener continually off balance. In spite of these qualities this was about as close to the mainstream that Beefheart ever wandered and it stands as possibly his most approachable release. It has got its fair share of the avant-garde excesses, mean ass attitude and sheer outright zaniness that characterises a lot of his music but there is a sheen of accessibility to much of the material. It would be stretching the bounds of reality to proclaim this as an easy album to embrace but for a gateway to the eccentric musical world of Don Van Vliet it is probably the first place to look.