Shiny Beast of thought indeed
After two relatively uninspired studio albums, Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams (both in 1974), followed by the well performed but ultimately unessential Live In London – Drury Lane ’74 the following year, Don Van Vliet went back into the studio in ‘76 to record Bat Chain Puller, an album that due to certain legal entanglements (and Frank Zappa’s reluctance to hand over the tapes) meant that it wasn’t issued until 2012, and even then after much wrangling with the Zappa estate. So Beefheart simply went on to re-record no less than six tracks from the original sessions (along with several new ones) and issue these as Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) instead.
Truth be told, many of the good captain’s connoisseur’s regard Shiny Beast as inferior to the album he taped in 1976 (how they would have known all those years ago is beyond me, since Zappa protected his tape library with an iron fist), yet opinions aside, Shiny Beast remains one of Beefheart’s finest LP’s before he walked away from the music business for good just a few years later.
With his revitalised Magic Band in tow, once again Beefheart brings his Howlin’ Wolf growl to the fore on opener “The Floppy Boot Stomp,” a classic Van Vliet number, full of surreal lyrical imagery (“The farmer screamed ‘n blew the sky off the mountains”), a primal rhythmic stomp, and Jeff Tepper’s bluesy slide guitar. The whole thing is a hoot, as is the calypso-esque “Tropical Hot Dog Night,” where marimbas and trombones create the illusion that the listener has just suddenly been transported to the Caribbean.
The upbeat instrumental “Ice Rose” (replete with vibes) harkens back to some of Zappa’s earlier material, followed by the nostalgic “Harry Irene,” one of Van Vliet’s more sentimental tunes, then the avant-blues-rock of “You Know You’re A Man,” on which each musician was allowed the opportunity the play a solo of their own (owing to a rare display of democracy on the part of Van Vliet, a quality he wasn’t always known for).
“Bat Chain Puller,” the outstanding title track, concludes side one, managing to combine both chaos and order in a way unique to Van Vliet alone. Fans of Trout Mask Replica will no doubt revel in the ensuing cacophony of confusion represented within its grooves.
“When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy,” which opens side two, sounds lime the Muppet House Band on LSD, whose unhinged rhythms and jagged blues riffs could be interpreted two ways – either as a serious inventive statement, or little more than a musical joke on the listener. “Owed t’Alex,” another blues-oriented tune, has Van Vliet reprising his inner Howlin’ Wolf, as the band does its best to keep the train from careering completely off the tracks. The song is especially notable as it contains arguably one the fiercest harmonica solos Van Vliet ever recorded.
As for the rest of the album, he revisits the Caribbean (“Candle Mambo”), laments over lost love (“Love Lies”), and lets it rip on instrumental “Suction Prints,” just as The Magic Band used to in days of old. Final track “Apes-Ma” is both sad and mysterious. Not really a song, just a brief spoken word monologue dedicated to a female gorilla kept in a zoo (and Beefheart’s own analogy for the human race).
The 2006 CD remaster has certainly done the album justice – the sound is bold and crystal clear, allowing each instrument to breathe just as they do on the original vinyl, yet without seeming clinical, or too EQ’d (Beefheart purportedly hated digital music).
Don Van Vliet was, and will forever remain, a true outsider, a sort of mad musical alchemist, inventing all kinds of new and wondrous elements in the laboratory of his fertile imagination. But of course he couldn’t have done it without The Magic Band, who were instrumental in allowing many of his ideas to be presented in the first place, because like Zappa, not even Beefheart could do it all on his own.