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.
– Buddy Seigal