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Ooh Lord, what a band. Actually, the Soft Machine weren't always as unknown as they are now - at one point (the earliest point in their career), they seriously rivalled Pink Floyd as Britain's most bizarre underground outfit. They are also known as the most important band on the so-called "Canterbury progressive scene", together with lesser acts like Gong, Matching Mole, and others; although, to my mind, dubbing the Machine as "progressive rock" is a major mistake - they have absolutely nothing in common with bands like Yes, ELP, or Genesis.The main, and crucial, difference between the Softs and Pink Floyd in their early days was that the Soft Machine never even smelled a whiff of 'commerciality' in their recordings, and compared to the band's first two albums, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn looks a wee bit like whatever Britney Spears has to offer us nowadays. Always atonal and dissonant, experimental, innovative and blaringly schizophrenic, yet always super-professional and far from amateurish, these early albums are indeed a tough nut to crack - but, as with every tough nut, once they're cracked, heaven waits inside... Relative heaven, of course: at times I'm tempted to dismiss the band entirely as just a bunch of esoteric gag-producing showmen with no real substance to their music. Like with the contemporary Krautrock scene, the Machine's primary concern was with "sound", not "music", or, if you wish, with "soundifying" the actual music. Unlike such Krautrock geniuses as Can, however, the Machine's "sounds" were mostly based on random improvisations, not the kind of cold mathematical precision that characterized their German colleagues. Which, in the end, makes the Machine's albums even less accessible for the general public than Can or Kraftwerk or Faust or any other German Krautrock band. The Machine win over the Krautrock scene in certain other respects, though. The "improvisatory" elements serve to make the music more humane and enjoyable for the kind of public that gets all nervous and fidgets its feet at the robotic German music. And these guys also had a sense of humour and a specific British inventiveness which the Germans always lacked; I mean, even if the particular melodies (or the particular lack of melodies) on the band's first two albums don't seem welcome to you, there's at least so many of them, and the band goes off in so many directions and tackles so many styles that it's at the least entertaining. In all, the "classic" Soft Machine albums haven't dated a wee bit - they still remain as one of the pinnacles of modern avantgarde, and should be heavily recommended for just about anybody interested in that kind of music. Unfortunately, this exciting period didn't last for far too long - it lasted for no more than two, maybe three albums. The band spent its youthful period (1967) playing all kinds of poppy stuff with a psychedelic flavour, broke all kinds of new grounds with their debut album (1968), displayed all kinds of paranoid weirdness on their second album (1969), and predicted all kinds of New Age and ambient music with their third album (1970). This is usually considered the "classic" period - the era which saw Soft Machine's main and most important contributions to rock music. However, by 1971 the band suddenly broke up with its revolutionary past and preferred to retread into a safe, cozy niche playing quiet, unobtrusive jazz-rock - or, what the hell, at times it was just modern jazz. Actually, the band had always been somewhat "jazzy" (they almost never even had a guitar player, except for a couple albums), but since their fourth album, the music lost any possible connections with "rock" - for better or for worse (for me - certainly for worse, as I'm not a great fan of modern jazz). Perversely enough, the band's "jazz" catalog has by far overshadowed their initial three albums: with endlessly changing lineups they continued pumping out new and new records, some of them slightly more interesting, some less, some completely dull and some containing certain delicious slices of music that can easily be overlooked through all the mediocrity (be sure to scoop up 1975's Bundles as the pinnacle of this period), but none of them ever broke the charts, and most are extremely hard to find nowadays. Their last studio album came out as late as 1981, when not a single original member was already left, and as far as I know, the band continued as a touring act until the 1990s, but this hardly had anything to do with the Soft Machine as much. Somehow I have managed to acquire pretty much every studio effort the Soft Machine have originally put out, and, though I definitely wasn't charmed at first, some of these records actually grow on you to a certain extent. I still can't give them more than a D rating, though - if I tried to do otherwise, I'd have to condemn myself as a hopeless snob, or at least raise Frank Zappa's rating to an A+ which I won't do anyway. Frankly speaking, there's just way too much dreck in the band's catalog - even in the prime 1968-70 days, the guys never knew exactly when to stop, and far too often, they cross that dangerous line which separates brilliant avantgarde from avantgarde for avantgarde's sake. And I warn everybody: stay away from the Softs if you weren't too wild about Zappa or Captain Beefheart in the first place, because this takes just a little bit more tolerance than listening to those two monsters of weirdness. Of course, the post-1970 albums are far more accessible - there ain't too much weirdness about your average avantgarde jazz-fusion - but they are also far less innovative and far less memorable, in the long run. I won't bring up the entire lineup here - if you don't have any idea about what a "revolving door principle" is, just look up "Soft Machine" in any rock encyclopaedia. Pretty much every following album had some lineup change or other, until, like I've already said, there wasn't a single original member left. Principal figures in the cult, however, seem to be: Robert Wyatt - the great weird drummer who's also well-known for certain collaborations with the Roxy crowd like Brian Eno or Phil Manzanera, and, of course, for his own prolific solo career; Mike Ratledge - the organ player, the Softs' backbone through most of their truly creative period; Hugh Hopper - the Softs' principal bass player. The latter-day Soft Machine period was characterized by active contributions from Karl Jenkins - a terrific brass player who was often (but not always) able to pull the band out of their misery, but not enough to make them dent the charts or anything. As for the exact lineups, I'll probably just mention them for every subsequent record, instead of baffling the reader in the introduction paragraph which, in that case, would probably take up thrice as much space as it does now.
Listenability: 0/5. It's
with great big pride that I award these guys this rating, actually.
Resonance: 0/5. See above.
Originality: 4/5. The first albums sprung out of near-nowhere.
Adequacy: 3/5. Points are taken seriously off due to all the pompous fusion stuff.
Diversity: 3/5. Most of their diversity was demonstrated during the first three years of their existence, but even that is enough.
Overall: 2.0 = D on the rating scale.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1968
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12
Weird, often catchy, and brimming with energy and ideas. Very British, too. Imagine it? British conservative guys doing avantgarde!Best song: WHY ARE WE SLEEPING?
Track listing: 1) Hope For Happiness; 2) Joy Of A Toy; 3) Hope For Happiness (reprise); 4) Why Am I So Short?; 5) So Boot If At All; 6) A Certain Kind; 7) Save Yourself; 8) Priscilla; 9) Lullabye Letter; 10) We Did It Again; 11) Plus Belle Qu'une Poubelle; 12) Why Are We Sleeping?; 13) Box 25/4 Lid.
Their first and their best. By 1968, the band had already been active for a long time - behind its shoulders lay their glorious past in the UFO where they used to share the bill with Pink Floyd all the time, and almost came "packaged together" as a double-band act. They'd also cut some demos and primitive recordings, but this was their first full-fledged venture into the world of polished studio recordings. And, as is often the case with avantgarde bands, this is also the place where they found a perfect balance between the Conventional and the Avantgarde - plunging headfirst into the world of the bizarre, they still leave us enough odds and ends from the more 'generic' poppy past to cling on to and not feel completely lost and baffled. That's what I like the most about debut albums - contrary to rumours, the best usually comes when you are able to find the golden middle between the past and the future. The best innovation is the one which is half-rooted in the past and half-presenting the future, and that's what the Softs do on here.At that time, the Softs' lineup was a trio: Kevin Ayers was responsible for bass and vocals, Robert Wyatt played drums and sang, too, and Mike Ratledge played keyboards. The album is thus infected with Ayers' lovingly pleasant pop sensibility, and it's mostly Kevin who "grounds" the band and prevents them from going completely berserk. However, at the time of recording Ayers was already on his way out - and for the last part of the sessions, was already replaced by Hugh Hopper on bass; he went on to become a cult figure in Seventies' rock, but that's another story. And what do we have on the actual record? Wow, where do I start. The usual structure is like that: a "non-trivial" pop song ('Hope For Happiness', 'Why Am I So Short?', 'Save Yourself', 'Lullabye Letter', etc.), often performed in a rather accessible, sing-along style, but always featuring certain weird elements to distinguish it from the general pop-producing public, is followed by a spooky mind-boggling organ/piano/drum jam with complicated time signatures and a great drive, and then without a break segues into another pop song. This gives the album a magnificent flow - none of the tracks last for far too long, and once you get tired of the experimentation part, you're always given something to relax to. The main problem is that none of this stuff is shatteringly brilliant - the jams are good, but they're nothing you couldn't live without, and the pop songs are never breathtaking, either, even if all the hooks are in their standard place. And nothing at all jumps out at you - on the contrary, unless you feed on weirdness daily and such albums are no surprise for you, you have to sit through the record for four or five times in a row before you can even start to appreciate what actually goes on. Beatlesque spontaneity these guys certainly had not. Nevertheless, I must say that over repeated listenings I have certainly grown addicted to a large number of the tracks on here. My favourite is currently the band's collaborative effort 'Why Are We Sleeping?', which comes as a great surprise near the very end of the album. Starting out as a pompous, organ-dominated march with Ayers (or was it Wyatt?) reciting the funny metaphysical lyrics in a restrained, robotic kind of way, it then breaks into a dreamy, psychedelic soaring chorus ('why why why are we sleeping...') that almost takes you places, if only it weren't so short. Meanwhile, Wyatt drums furiously and Kevin plays all these delicious bass lines that effectively mask the lack of electric guitar. Generally, though, the album is more renowned for the opening 'Hope For Happiness' - a freaky joy which announces the Softs' arrival on the recording scene with a bang... literally - there's a drum bang and then they go 'aaaaaaaaaaahhh-aaah-aah-aah-aah' in the typical British avantgarde tradition. Dissonant, slow, lethargic and only breaking through with the repetitive chorus ('hope for happiness-hope for happiness-hope for happiness-happiness-happiness...'), it's somehow so drenched with the British feel of life that it can easily qualify as the avantgarde equivalent of just about anything the Kinks were recording at the time. Same goes for the complaintive 'Why Am I So Short?', the funniest track on here, with Ayers impersonating a British dandy throwing a fit of self-guilt - at least, that's what I make out of it. Meanwhile, Wyatt throws in the pretty rockin' 'Save Yourself', a song obviously heavily influenced by Hendrix, even if it features no guitar. But Mike Ratledge's sharp, menacing organ lines easily replace Hendrix's wailing guitar patterns, and just go ahead and tell me if the chorus to the song ain't structured similar to Jimi's stylizations on Axis: Bold As Love. Very cool. As for the jams, they're all pretty good, if, like I already said, a bit dull in places. But they serve as excellent launchpads to demonstrate the band's playing skills - this is where they could have easily blown Pink Floyd off the record, as their chops simply can't be beat by the Floydsters' amateurish efforts. Ratledge soloes like an 'organic demon', especially on the jam in the middle of 'Lullabye Letter'; Wyatt shows himself to be one of Britain's most free-flowing, professional drummers, especially on 'So Boot If At All', and Ayers throws in those thick bass lines that never let the numbers fall apart even when the other members go completely berserk. And at times they indulge in brilliant interplay ideas - check out the wonderful part on 'So Boot If At All', for instance, where Wyatt plays his drum solo while Ratledge counteracts him with bits of lounge and rag-time piano playing. Of course, all of this leaves little space for any kind of emotional expression - the only tracks which can actually move me are probably 'Why Are We Sleeping?' and, out of the instrumental numbers, the 'Joy Of A Toy' jam that's inserted in the middle of 'Hope For Happiness' and is extremely moody and gorgeous in small bits (it was later re-recorded by Ayers on his solo album of the same name). But, well, this doesn't mean that the album doesn't deserve an eleven by any means. Oh, and did I yet mention 'We Did It Again'? Oh how hypnotic it is in its repetitiveness. 'We did it again we did it again we did it again we did it again we did it again wediditagainwedititagainwediditagainwediditagain...' err... sorry.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11
Easily the maddest album ever recorded, and that's worth something alone.Best song: .... ... .. . . . . .... ... .. ... ........ !
Track listing: 1) Pataphysical Introduction (part 1); 2) A Concise British Alphabet (part 1); 3) Hibou, Anemone And Bear; 4) A Concise British Alphabet (part 2); 5) Hulloder; 6) Dada Was Here; 7) Thank You Pierrot Lunaire; 8) Have You Ever Bean Green?; 9) Pataphysical Introduction (part 2); 10) Out Of Tunes; 11) As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still; 12) Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listening; 13) Fire Engine Passing With Bells Clanging; 14) Pig; 15) Orange Skin Food; 16) A Door Opens And Closes; 17) 10:30 Returns To The Bedroom.
As with every such record, the rating will probably satisfy no-one - you'll either love this to death or throw it out of the window halfway through the actual music. However, most fans actually regard this (and the following album which is, however, very very different) as the Machine's pinnacle, and it can be easily understood. No more Ayers on this album - the band functions as a trio once again (Ratledge, Hopper, Wyatt) - and all the pop sensibilities are going out the window. This is also where the band starts to pay very little attention to vocals: the sequence of tracks that finishes the album is deprived of them altogether, and on most other tracks they hardly do any actual singing: screaming, chanting, reciting, even dreamy passages in Spanish (on 'Dada Was Here' - indeed!), but it's clear that from now on the voices are treated as just part of the general schizophrenic scenery, nothing more. Actually, listening to this album easily helps one understand why the Soft Machine were chosen to back Syd Barrett on his first solo album - apart from their long-time acquaintance, the nutty minds of the Softs could be a perfect foil for the nutty mind of the Scarecrow.From the opening cut - 'Pataphysical Introduction' - with the band breaking out of your speakers like mad and Wyatt announcing the presenation of 'a concise British alphabet', you know you're in for something special. Out of the seventeen tracks on the album, few go for more than one or two minutes, and they represent a constant change of moods, directions, styles, and patterns. This is also where the band's jazz tendencies show through: this is still as far from "generic modern jazz" as can be, but the sound textures are certainly pure jazz, and Volume Two can hardly be called a 'rock' album even in a broad sense. The tiny bits of the band's past can yet be discerned in tracks like 'Hullo Der' and 'Have You Ever Bean Grean?'; actually, the whole chunk of tracks 5-8 is very pretty, consisting of scratches of obviously 'unfinished' melancholic pop ditties, all based on Ratledge's sad piano riffs and Wyatt's introspective singing (or "reciting" or "declamating", whatever). This part is moody and has a weird psychedelic beauty of its own, with the gorgeous melody of 'Hullo Der' where Wyatt expresses his wishes to be a big man in the FBI ('or the CIA') being my favourite. Actually, most of the album up to the reprise of 'Pataphysical Introduction' is prime stuff, with the six-minute 'Hibou Anemone And Bear' being rather hard to take in one go, but then it does grow on you. Three minutes of a rip-roarin' organ jam, and then Wyatt steps in with those gorgeous vocal intonations of his... not bad for starters. The totally uncompromised stuff, however, comes later - and that's the stuff I'm not really fond of. On tracks like 'Out Of Tunes', 'Fire Engine Passing With Bells Clanging' and others, the band just jams in every direction, resulting in loads of chaotic psychedelic noise that's neither funny nor particularly innovative. At times the stuff they're doing sounds dangerously close to the Stones' 'Sing This All Together (See What Happens)', and it's not good news, nossiree, because who needs a rip-off of a classic 'psychonoise' that was itself a rip-off of Pink Floyd's and others' psychonoises? As a result, you just have to sit very carefully and fish out the multiple bits and pieces of coolness that are inserted in between the unlistenable chaos. Thus, as you're ready to go desperate, you're greeted by Hugh Hopper's charming ditty 'Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listening', with a complex, but memorable melody played by Hugh himself in its entirety on an acoustic. At another time, you're greeted with 'Pig', a number that starts out as a powerful dark bass/organ jam and continues as a lightweight jazz shuffle. 'Orange Skin Food' has a mad 'underwater' organ solo by Ratledge that makes the number worthwhile, and the terrifying sounds are especially cool in 'A Door Opens And Closes', where it sounds as if Ratledge is plugging his organ through a wah-wah pedal, and Hopper puts so much fuzz on the bass that they almost sound heavier than Hendrix himself. So it's bits and pieces like these that are actually interesting to listen to which make me give the album that I - by all accounts - should deeply despise, such a relatively high rating. Yeah, there's loads of bland filler material on here, because these guys just never seemed to know what they were exactly doing. But I deeply respect the musicianship, and the best news is that with each and every new listen Hopper's gritty basslines, Ratledge's fiery organ solos and Wyatt's energetic drumming just keep on growing on you. Again, apart from a couple pieces in the middle, the album has no deep emotional resonance at all, but it certainly is more loud and has even more dynamic power than their first one. And, of course, the grooviest thing about it is the enormous potload of ideas. Where on their following albums repetitiveness, monotonousness, and lengthy grooves based on endless replaying of the same motif would become the norm of the day, Volume Two has new riff after new riff, new tonality after new tonality, and a great diversity in moods - from the ominous apocalyptic notes of 'A Door Opens And Closes' to the gentle introspectiveness of 'Have You Ever Bean Grean?' to the glitz and tongue-in-cheek show-offiness of 'Pataphysical Introduction', they're all here. Brian Hopper (Hugh's brother, perhaps?) contributes some saxophone parts on this one, although the band isn't really into brass yet; this wouldn't happen until the next album, where they really took a sharp twist from their past. Note: Volume Two is usually marketed paired together with the band's debut album on one CD. It's therefore advisable to program out some of the nuttier tracks and let everything else run together. The result will be a great innovative album quite worthy of a 12 or, for some, maybe even a 13.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10
Electronic jazz-fusion that never knows when to stop. This is NOT always entertaining, but at least it's rather inventive.Best song: OUT-BLOODY-RAGEOUS
Track listing: 1) Facelift; 2) Slightly All The Time; 3) Moon In June; 4) Out-bloody-rageous.
And you probably thought that Tales From Topographic Oceans was the first double album with but four tracks on it ever. Way to go, brother: unless I missed something, the honour belongs to Album Number Three of those loony dudes from Soft Machine. It was a sharp contrast to their preceding record, too: whereas that one mostly consisted of short snippets, Third slaps you in the face with a never-ending sequence of four prolongated, monotonous, often close to ambient, and definitely innovative, if not necessarily exciting, suites, each of which lasts over eighteen minutes. Whee.Historically speaking, this period in the life of Soft Machine can be described as somewhat of a missing link between early King Crimson and the ambient scenery of Brian Eno. It can also be easily compared to the contemporary progress on the German Krautrock scene (Can, Kraftwerk, Faust, whatever), but, like I already mentioned in the intro paragraphs, Soft Machine are definitely not in the German vein: they still veer more towards the jazzy side of things, with Elton Dean's and Lyn Dobson's saxes and Nick Evans' trombones usually carrying a significant share of the instrumental functions. This means that the music is somewhat more lively and humane than most of the Krautrock tunes; and this is also what brings it closer to King Crimson (some of the mad sax & drum breaks in 'Facelift', in fact, sound as if they were taken directly from that band's '21st Century Schizoid Man'!). Oh, did I mention Dean and Dobson and Evans? That's right, in one simple go the band had grown from a three-piece ensemble to a seven-piece, adding four brass players in a row - these three plus Mark Charig on cornet. The scene is thus set for the band's subsequent transformation into a completely generic jazz-fusion combo; but not yet, not here and not now. Fans often call this the best Soft Machine album, and critics sometimes join in the general chorus. Since I haven't yet heard the previous two albums (also much praised), I wouldn't know about it. This stuff isn't exactly ear-shattering: jazz-fusion had already been pioneered by Zappa at the time, and, well, both King Crimson and the Krautrock scene were already in full blossom. Perhaps the most unusual thing here (for the time, I mean) is Mike Ratledge's worship of electronic devices: even if there are no synths on the album to be credited for, his distorted organs and pianos do the trick nicely and create atmospherics of the kind that King Crimson certainly didn't know how to produce (they did try something on 'Moonchild' but as everybody knows, that experiment had failed). And, of course, this record's nutty. Way too nutty for 1970. Not even Zappa could allow himself something of the kind. The first side of the album, called 'Facelift', was recorded live: it's spliced together from two different improvisations, recorded in January 1970. To a certain extent, it's my favourite on the album, just because it's about the only thing that really rocks on here - from time to time. The lengthy five-minute intro, with creepy organ bursts and gloomy feedback slowly advancing on the listener, is by far the best part; but, like I said, from time to time the band breaks into some heavily Crimsonian jams that are quite provocative. Lyn Dobson's flute parts are quite pretty, too. They then continue with 'Slightly All The Time', probably the least experimental track on here. Frankly speaking, it's just eighteen minutes of a jazzy jam, and it doesn't do much for me. Robert Wyatt plays a steady, complicated drum pattern, and band members take turns to throw in lengthy sax, flute, and distorted organ solos. That's okay, but there's nothing in the song you won't find on a solid record by any notorious jazz master. In sharp contrast, 'Moon In June' is more psychedelic than jazz. It contains the only vocals you'll find on the album - Robert Wyatt's, of course; and the first several minutes of the tune are very attractive, with Bob singing a cute little medieval-tinged melody in that pleasant high falsetto of his. Watch out for Hugh Hopper's short, but cathartic bass solo, too. Unfortunately, as the tune progresses, the band falls into way too many 'Gentle-Giantisms': that is, making the song ten times more complex (not to mention long) than it should have originally been, changing time signatures every several seconds to show their virtuosity and ruining all the pleasure one could have garnered from the first five minutes of it. With all these flaws, I have no choice but to declare 'Out-Bloody-Rageous' the most consistent and solid composition on the album. If you're a Beatles fan, you'll certainly remember the coda of 'Flying' - remember, the chaotic section where several overdubbed mellotrons, some of them backwards, seem to grab the listener and cover him up with clouds? That's the way this particular tune starts, as if catching the fadeout to 'Flying' and bringing it back to life, only in a longer, more expansive and complicated manner; five minutes of a beautiful keyboard crescendo. Three years later this trick was expropriated by Fripp & Eno for their, supposedly revolutionary, album No Pussyfooting; they certainly should have credited Mr Ratledge for an idea or two (although that's debatable - we'd have to trigger a chain: Mr Ratledge would then have to credit the Fab Four for an idea or two and... better not start). Then it's five more minutes of fusion, aw yech, let's skip it, and then the band swerves into a half-jazz, half-psychedelic jam that's not too climactic but which is at least slow, moody, and relaxing. And the track fizzles out just as it fizzled in: with a beautiful keyboard attack, except that this time it's far 'lighter' as compared to the 'dense' clouds of the intro. As you might have easily noticed, I'm not head-over-toes in love with the album. This is primarily due to the fact that I have little tolerance for derivative jazz, which Third has certainly got a lot of, and I'm by all means against complexity for complexity's sake, which mars 'Moon In June'. If you don't have any problems with these two factors, feel free to increase the rating a couple of points - I only give it a 10 because of the keyboard beauty of 'Out-Bloody-Rageous'. Nevertheless, this is still a record well worth having in your collection, and one which has quite a big amount of historical importance.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1971
Record rating = 4
Overall rating = 6
Boring, generic fusion. Sorry guys - this stuff does nothing for me and never will.Best song: everything just stinks.
Track listing: 1) Teeth; 2) Kings And Queens; 3) Fletcher's Blemish; 4) Virtually Part 1; 5) Virtually Part 2; 6) Virtually Part 3; 7) Virtually Part 4.
A terrible, shocking disaster. Arguably, this is the absolutely worst Soft Machine record ever, despite the fact that it still has Robert Wyatt featured on it. But he isn't credited anywhere on the album, and it's clear that he already was on his way out, and therefore quite content to just play his part as a drummer and leave everything at that. Elsewhere, it's just the same lineup as on Third, although officially the band is once again reduced, to a quartet this time: out of the swarm of brass players, only Elton Dean is retained as an official member (so the lineup is Hopper, Ratledge, Dean, and Wyatt). But both Charig and Evans are also involved in the project still; plus we have Roy Babbington contributing double bass and Jimmy Hastings and Alan Skidmore are also brought in to help on flute, clarinet and tenor sax. As a result, there's a whole crowd of brass players on the album... and that's about the only thing that this album has.Besides the fact that from now on, the band had completely abandoned any vocals forever - Wyatt does not sing at all even if he is present on this album - there's only four compositions again, one of them being divided into four different parts (Hopper's lengthy 'Virtually' suite). Hopper also contributes 'Kings And Queens', Elton Dean contributes the ugly 'Fletcher's Blemish', and Ratledge 'shines' with the album opener 'Teeth'. But I don't even have the slightest idea of how to even begin reviewing these compositions. The main problem is that this is a hardcore jazz-fusion record, with more emphasis on 'jazz' than on 'fusion'. And I have never yet managed to see a review of a 'modern jazz' record that would manage to describe such a record apart from the usual terms like 'this album rules/sucks' or 'there are masterful/shockingly weak and derivative sax passages on here'. Which, in my mind, only serves to showcase the complete emotional and stylistic blandness of such albums. Okay, so Dean and all the other crowds on Fourth probably know their job well. But how do I know? They just engage in these endless, boring, gray and lifeless sax jams that mean nothing and go nowhere, on songs with titles that are in no way related to the music and only serve as the Ultimate in Abstraction. So I'm not going to pretend that I have any respect for such kinds of music, much less enjoy any of it. Even after the third listen, the only good thing I could say about this is that it makes passable background music - passable, not enjoyable, which means I don't feel the urgent need to turn it off while doing some work or other. On fourth listen, while painfully trying to decide to write at least something good about it, I found out that the first part of 'Virtually' has some okayish ambient potential - Ratledge's rhythmic, moody keyboard stylizations on that one, while essentially cold and detached, might have been put to brilliant use by somebody like Brian Eno. And the fourth part of 'Virtually' is simply ambient music in itself - but it's bad, poorly written and performed ambient music. Good ambient music is supposed to either serve as a great relaxation mechanism or, in the hands of a true master, as a cathartic listening experience. 'Virtually Part 4' certainly has a lot of atmosphere, with Ratledge abusing the wah-wah pedal on his organ again, but it can hardly be called 'beautiful' or 'mind-blowing', just a quiet enough ending for the whole record that certainly was no rabble-rousing matter itself. Actually, Ratledge is surprisingly underwhelming on the album - he only lets out one or two of his trademark distorted organ solos, none of which are among his best, and for the most part, he just plays some quiet, barely audible rhythms. Hopper's thick bass sound is completely gone as well, and likewise, the paranoid drumming style of Wyatt is replaced by a steady, generic jazz pacing. It's almost as if an evil fairy had passed by the notorious trio and with a wave of a magic wand or something deprived them of their outstanding talents. I can hardly suggest they were drugged out, either - if there ever was a moment when these guys could have been drugged out, it's during the recording of Volume Two. Nope, they just decided to get quite ordinary for a while and let the brass crowds, headed by Dean, do the job while the rest were relaxing. And of course I'm not a great connoisseur of sax talents, but hey, I know what I like, and these guys are definitely not John Coltrane. Hell, they're not even Bobby Keyes. Most of this stuff is just ugly, or at the least - completely pointless. It is no big surprise, then, that Fourth was a turning point in Soft Machine's career. From now on, they were still in the underground (just because there were plenty more, and better, jazz-fusion bands on the surface), but all of their cultural and musical importance had disappeared without leaving a trace. The golden days of innovation were over once and for all, and the gray days of artistic mediocrity were ahead. And even if the band did get better later on, little by little adding some real edges to their newly-styled music, they would never again have the impact produced by their first 'Grand Three'. Wyatt's departure was quite symbolic in that respect: the guy who probably symbolized the band's most adventurous and eccentric side was one of the first 'veterans' to flee the field for good.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 8
Blah. Yawn. All you jazz fans, come right here and feel free to kill me.Best song: ALL WHITE
Track listing: 1) All White; 2) Drop; 3) MC; 4) As If; 5) LBO; 6) Pigling Bland; 7) Bone.
After cutting Fourth with the band, Robert Wyatt quit (being replaced by John Marshall; the record also features Phil Howard as second drummer and Roy Babbington on double bass as a nearly official band member). Arguably (and I would even say - inarguably), that was the most serious loss of a member that the Softs had ever endured. They lost a great drummer, a solid composer, the only singer and, what's most important, their main tie to rock music as a whole. Yeah, he didn't make a whole lot of contributions to Fourth, of course, but at least while he was still there, there was some hope deep down in the bottom of our soul. Need some proof that Wyatt was so important? Fifth isn't even 'jazz-fusion'. Fifth is a pure jazz record, from beginning to end, and not an outstanding jazz record at that. There ain't a single guitar on the whole album, for Chrissake! Okay, so there wasn't that much guitar on previous albums, either, I'll admit that. But Third was at least daring and experimental, and it covered a vast territory, from jazz ('Slightly All The Time') to prog ('Moon In June') to ambient ('Out-Bloody-Rageous'). Fifth is nothing more than a disconnected bunch of modern jazz jams, and I really don't see any reason why you should mess around with this record until you have assembled a thorough collection of Miles Davis, for example.Okay, so I allowed myself a bit of cheating. In any case, Fifth is a significant improvement after the disaster of Fourth - there are some slightly experimental moves on the album, and in a number of spots the uniform saxophone passages are diversified with some neat tricks that are interesting enough. But let's assume I'm just taking my revenge on these guys myself. Didn't they cheat us on the very first track, Ratledge's 'All White'? The opening is fabulous, with echoey sax lines underpinned by an ominous twang - twang - twang of the bass, sounding like a spooky overture to a spooky rock opera about spooky vampires or, I dunno, Lucifer himself. It's possibly the best two minutes on the entire record. And then, presto, all the spookiness and the atmosphere goes kaputt and the band charges into something typically Miles Davis-style. Like I said, even if it's just me who doesn't like to be entertained by Miles Davis, there's no reason you should prefer this to the original. And, of course, the composition has to run for six minutes, which goes without saying. thank God it doesn't run for thirty. Likewise, 'Drop' follows the same pattern - it begins as an intriguing variation on 'Out-Bloody-Rageous', with more keyboard loops and real drops of water dripping down and down, but that's, like, two minutes out of eight. And the rest? More jazz, except that I can't really understand what instrument is soloing most of the time; sounds like a cross between an organ and a saxophone, so I guess it's either a distorted organ tone or a synth-processed saxophone. Whatever. I don't really care that much either way. Out of the other tracks, only two manage to stand out somehow - 'LBO' is just a short drum solo by new member John Marshall, and a pretty good drum solo at that; and the album ends with the only non-jazzy composition, Elton Dean's 'Bone'. This one's more in the Softs' 'ambient' plan of things; grizzly and mean, and mostly static. Can would probably be proud of something like that. It's not that I hate this record or something; like I said, there are enough little moments to make it at least a wee bit involving, unlike the smooth, bland atmosphere of Fourth. I give it an overall rating of eight, which mostly stands for 'poor, but not unlistenable'. The problem is, I just don't see what kind of audiences it could attract. Rock fans, like me, will probably despise it, considering that Soft Machine's earlier stuff is ten times more important for that genre and really contained some innovations. Jazz fans will probably just be unaware of its existence, and those few that have the chance to hear it will dismiss it as something entirely derivative. Therefore, the only reason of Fifth that I'm able to see is 'educational' - to get rockin' an' rollin' kids to appreciate jazz stuff, much like many see the primary function of ELP in addicting rockin' an' rollin' kids to classical music. Unfortunately, while ELP did create an entirely new type of music, the one that relied heavily on classical but reworked it and transformed it into a fascinating synthesis with rock, the material on Soft Machine's Fifth is simply regressive - a band that once used to set the latest avantgarde trends and now limiting itself to playing derivative, uninspired jazz sludge. Yeah, I know that if you ain't never heard any jazz before, this might seem fascinating. In fact, most positive fan reviews of this period of Soft Machine's activity that I've read seem to belong exactly to that category, people just saying 'this stuff is great, I've never heard anything like that before, it opened my eyes, etc.'. If that's how it is, one can only feel sorry and happy for the kids at once. As for me - well, I'm not a great connoisseur of jazz (so sue me), but I know what I like, and this album is certainly not for my liking. It's emotionally vacant, dull, and has almost no memorable melodies or startingly new ideas. So why should I bother?
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9
Lots of sprawl, but this time the guys are actually adding (a) real atmosphere and (b) real riffs. Which is kinda soothing.Best song: 1983
Track listing: 1) Fanfare; 2) All White; 3) Between; 4) Riff; 5) 37 1/2; 6) Gesolreut; 7) E.P.V.; 8) Lefty; 9) Stumble; 10) 5 From 13 (For Phil Seamen With Love & Thanks); 11) Riff II; 12) The Soft Weed Factor; 13) Stanley Stamps Gibbon Album; 14) Chloe And The Pirates; 15) 1983.
Soft Machine are on a rise again. At least, on a relative rise. With Six, the guys return to the double LP format, this time featuring one LP live, one LP in the studio. Even more important, they have a most important lineup change - Elton Dean is out, replaced by oboe, sax and piano player Karl Jenkins, the dude that would go on to become the very soul and spirit of the latter day Soft Machine. And this is very good news for the band. Unlike Dean and the Charig/Evans brass crowd, Jenkins is that kind of the rare woodwind player who actually feels that the most important thing is not flawless technique or ridiculous "authenticity", but drive and emotional power instead. That's not to say he blows me away all the time: no, quite on the contrary, far too often I'm bored with his playing just as I was bored with Dean and Co.'s playing. But at least he always sounds fresh and it seems like he's playing for the fun of it, with enough life and vigour, unlike the formulaic, lifeless passages that poisoned my spirit on Fourth and Fifth. In other words, Six is not the kind of music one usually associates with "boring jazz-rock", while the previous two albums certainly are.Even more so, Ratledge comes to life, too - maybe it was Jenkins' presence that gave him additional forces, but his presence is very much noticeable. Of course, he'd abandoned the furious Hendrix-imitating organ riffage of the days of yore long since, but his newly-chosen style - becalmed, relaxating jazz with significant notes of ambience thrown in - works better than ever; just listen to the atmospheric watery tinkle of the keyboards on 'Between' or the ominous synth 'goggles' on '1983' and you'll certainly get a taste for it. I can't say a lot of good words in favour of Hopper or Marshall, of course - the former never gets a real chance to shine, while the latter is just revelling in his dexterity, showcasing his skills and being probably the most self-indulgent member of the band at that particular point. But, well, who cares. A solid jazz drummer is a solid jazz drummer. The live record seems, for the most part, to be improvised; the only track taken from an earlier album is 'All White' from Fifth, but even that one is performed quite differently from the original, obviously, to accommodate Jenkins' playing style. The most memorable tune, of course, is 'Riff' (and 'Riff II', its reprise at the end), if only because, well, it's indeed a riff, and a good one at that. On 'Riff', Hopper gets to shine, for once, holding that gruesome, yet stately and majestic, riff down and being aided by Ratledge who almost turns it to 'goth'; on 'Riff II', it's Jenkins who gets to be riffing on his oboe. Both are good. Elsewhere, this 'goth' influence shows through some more on the aptly-German-titled 'Gesolreut' and in a couple other places, which is good because it at least gives the guys some specific sense of direction, like 'okay, we are now willing to terrorize the audiences in an intelligent kind of way'. I may not always dig this approach, but I at least understand it. As for the studio stuff, it continues the same tendency. Hopper and Marshall are inobtrusive, and most of the action takes place in the form of Ratledge/Jenkins interplay - the former indulging in rhythmic, well-polished Eno-istic synthesizer patterns, the latter adding moody brass parts. The "catchiest" of these numbers, if the word "catchy" may seem to be appropriate here, is undoubtedly 'The Soft Weed Factor', whose monotonous, yet strangely hypnotizing organ "chiming" makes up for tremendously good background music. You do have to get used to the nagging distorted organ solos that break through the monotony, though, but then again, if not for these solos, this would almost equal Eno's Thursday Afternoon... I don't care much for 'Stanley Stamps Gibbon Album' or 'Chloe And The Pirates', though. The former is good to dance to, probably, but little else; and the latter, well, I expected a track with such a cool reference to the Longus novel to evoke some kind of visions, but no, this is definitely not Eno. I couldn't see either Chloe or the pirates, just a lot of Ratledge noodling, some of it rather pretty and classical-influenced, some not. However, I do admit that the track might have enough potential to grow on you in the future: out of all the compositions on the album, it is by far the most complex and the most intriguing for neo-classical fans. Me, I simply prefer the album closer - '1983' is probably the closest they got to ever recapturing the atmosphere of Third. It's creepy as hell; Ratledge is going for more 'goth' with gusto, starting from the introductory 'poisoned' little passage on the organ and continuing with spooky piano lines. Eno comes to mind again - this time, the stuff previews some of his most fascinating work on Bowie's Heroes, most notably 'Sense Of Doubt'. As for the endlessly repeating 'tinkle-tinkle' of the synthesizers, well, it either drives you mad in the best Nazi traditions or provides a terrific backbone to the whole experience. Whichever you may choose. To conclude - Six is certainly not a great album, but at least it manages to show one important thing: Soft Machine had something to say yet, they weren't just dragging a campy ridiculous existence along. The Coming of Jenkins really managed to breathe new life in the cogs and wheels of the rusty old apparatus that was already beginning to 'harden'. And that's good news.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9
Actually, they start to get really pleasing once again - if nothing on here is spectacular.Best song: NETTLE BED
Track listing: 1) Nettle Bed; 2) Carol Ann; 3) Day's Eye; 4) Bone Fire; 5) Tarabos; 6) D.I.S; 7) Snoland; 8) Penny Hitch; 9) Block; 10) Down The Road; 11) The German Lesson; 12) The French Lesson.
The Softs continue to warm my bleeding heart. Not heaten it up, perhaps, but warm it they do. Hugh Hopper is gone - don't know where, but with Roy Babbington replacing him on the trusty "double bass", this is definitely not a fatal blow. Even if this only leaves Ratledge as a veteran, and he wouldn't last long, either...In any case, this is, once again, Ratledge's and Jenkins' show all the way, and a good one it is. The band pulls all its forces together and shows that it at least has a sense of direction. Now they are either performing mild jammy rockers, based on real riffs and actually displaying creative ideas, or engaging in even milder, moodier atmospheric 'ballads' that may not be fantastic, but are definitely a good step up from the murkiness of Fourth or the genericness of Fifth. One needn't actually go further than the first two tracks to evidence the facts. 'Nettle Bed' is a real brainstormer - the first and arguably best "fast" track of the latter day Soft Machine. The scene is set with a thick, ominous organ riff and Marshall's paranoid drumming, with overdubs of several more sytnh patterns so as not to make you feel too lonely, against which we experience the usual Ratledge solos. This may look extremely similar to some of the better performances off Six, but it's better because it's more memorable - that grumbly descending organ riff is first-rate, even if on further listens it does start to bear a striking resemblance to Clapton's main riff from 'Badge' (yeah). And 'Carole Ann', which comes next, once again presages Eno's ambience. Listening to these becalming synth patterns and also remembering something very similar from the German scene, I can't help asking myself the question why is Eno revered as the real father of ambient music and these guys are not? And then, of course, I immediately answer to myself - because Eno did it far better. Hear that? Ambient music should be respected, ladies and gentlemen, if only for the fact that some ambient music is way better than some other ambient music. It seems quite simplistic at first - all you actually need to do to create some ambience is turn the volume up loud, press a key and hold it down for 30 seconds. But, as you can see, it doesn't always work. Eno's 'M386' is a masterpiece; Soft Machine's 'Carole Ann' is not. Nevertheless, it's still good and eminently listenable. Things go off in a more conventional mood afterwards, with lengthy oboe solos on the fusion bore 'Day's Eye', but they pick it up on 'Tarabos', with yet another monstruous organ riff and more and more oboe. 'Tarabos' is actually something like the equivalent of tracks like Blind Faith's 'Had To Cry Today': one guy holds down this complex, yet monotonous riff and repeats it for three thousand times in exactly the same manner, while the other guy is weaving his endless solos around it, and they do it in such a manner that whenever you're tired of following the solos, you can switch on to the main riff and just groove along to it, or vice versa. Kinda convenient for impatient listeners. I don't know, however, if impatient listeners will be able to get their kicks out of the funny percussion noises on Marshall's 'D.I.S', where he takes pleasure in producing sounds like throwing stones at empty tin cans. The album wears one down, anyway, if one is not used to it, but I guess that just goes without saying for about any Soft Machine album. Whenever it comes to the obligatory fusion noodlings, like 'Penny Hitch' or 'Block', I'm always bored to death; ooh, how I wish the band would abandon this lifeless, scholastic style. But luckily for us, on the second side they still have some candy left, hidden in the depths of the bluesy 'rocker' 'Down The Road', and some more ambient snippets, like 'Snodland' and the closing composition, for some reason divided in two parts respectively called 'The German Lesson' and 'The French Lesson', even if one segues into another not just without any breaks - without any changes in melody. Figures. Of course, on a general level of being the sense of this album still escapes me - so I can't really call Six or Seven a "return to form" in the finest sense of the expression. But see, I'm just trying to get to the bottom of it and I'm perfectly willing to give all these records a chance. And I do see perspectives in the predictable, yet adventurous happenings of Seven, although the generic fusion bits really mar the impression. I understand "rock" - it represents energy and life force; I understand "ambience" - it's meditative and relaxating. But bleed me or beat me, I'll probably never learn to think much of the Softs' brand of fusion. Beats me to hell. I at least understand it when Jeff Beck does those kinds of things - he's a master technician and a master of emotional playing, too (sometimes). But Karl Jenkins? Gimme a break, the guy's good, but it's still kinda ridiculous... What these dudes needed so badly at the moment was a fresh aid from someone with a good guitar potential - they couldn't just go on being an organ/oboe soloing duet, for Chrissake. So help arrived a year later, but I wonder if it was not too late... P.S. Mr Hugh Hopper proved to be a very nice gentleman, actually - he took the trouble to reach me by E-Mail and communicate some data about himself and his recent CD releases. I'm not posting his E-mail here or all ye fans might bug him too much, but here are the links. For his CDs: www.cuneiformrecords.com, www.voiceprint.co.uk; for specific info - www.musart.co.uk; www.people.a2000.nl/arotshui/sm-index; email@example.com; www.fireflies-in-the-dark.net. Feel free to soak in more information.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10
The Machine's peak as a fusion band - simply because the band has finally figured out how to write respectable compositions.Best song: HAZARD PROFILE
Track listing: 1) Hazard Profile Part 1; 2) Part 2; 3) Part 3; 4) Part 4; 5) Part 5; 6) Gone Sailing; 7) Bundles; 8) Land Of The Bag Snake; 9) The Man Who Waved At Trains; 10) Peff; 11) Four Gongs Two Drums; 12) The Floating World.
At this point even the most hardcore fans often abandon the Soft Machine, but this is also the point where I proudly step in and say that Bundles is Soft Machine at its absolute best since at least Third and maybe even before that... even if it hardly is Soft Machine at all.The fact is, Bundles sounds nothing like Third, and it hardly even sounds like anything from the 1971-73 period. Two more important changes are introduced. First, guitar wizard Alan Holdsworth is joining the band which thus receives an official and professional guitar player for the first time since their earliest recorded output. This certainly makes the music more accessible for those who are tired of hearing the organ/oboe duet all the time. Second, Jenkins accepts complete domination of the band, pushing Ratledge to the very borders, and moving on to the keyboards himself. Ratledge only gets two compositions of his own on the album ('The Man Who Waved At Trains' and 'Peff'), but they aren't all that impressive, and they're not even different from each other, more or less like 'French Lesson' and 'German Lesson'. And they're plain obsolete: the same type of dull fusion-style ear-candy that just floats by and does nothing. Obviously, Mike was just spent by the time, or maybe he was too weak and unwilling to protest against the new directions the band's music had taken by that point. He would quit for good soon after the recording of the album, the last Machine veteran to flee the field and leave the band with absolutely no links to its past. This leaves Jenkins and Holdsworth as the full-fledged masters on the album (Marshall also contributes the weak 'Four Gongs Two Drums' with the obligatory percussion solo, but this time it's really getting tedious). And Jenkins rules supreme, throwing out three blistering compositions - the five-part 'Hazard Profile', the title track, and the ambience-tinged 'The Floating World', all three of which are not only among the Machine's best stuff ever, but which are really the kind of compositions that give fusion a good name. They are energetic, expertly performed, all based around solid, interchanging riffs, plus Holdsworth is a guitar god - the kind of player one really needs for a fusion record. His finger-flashing style reminds me a little of Ritchie Blackmore, although Holdsworth definitely wins in the technical skill section (not a note missed or misplayed anywhere - almost automatic precision), but loses in the expressivity section. But, after all, 'expressive fusion' is an oxymoron, isn't it? Fusion is mostly show-off, and if you're gonna show off, you should at least deserve the right to show off. And Alan certainly deserves it. Anyway, 'Hazard Profile' strikes me as the most intelligent and enthralling 'fusion suite' ever written, from the opening toll of the bell (very misleading - it doesn't fit at all with the rest of that style, except, maybe, for the fact that it is supposed to announce a "grand" opening) to the closing synthesizer notes. During all of its eighteen minutes, it's never boring at all, which is really amazing - for me, at least. After the bells, you have the great riff to which you can groove for several minutes; then it goes away and Massa Holdsworth throws in a couple of jaw-dropping solos that put Massa Blackmore to shame; Holdsworth finds it no problem to easily alternate delicate moody passages with fifty-notes-per-second thunderstorms, displaying certain playing tricks that Blackmore could only dream of. The second part, then, throws us into a short and gentle 'toccatina' by Jenkins, backed by soft acoustic playing from Alan; and Part 3 makes the emphasis on 'beautiful' (those first few seconds of Alan playing weepy notes is the most gorgeous moment on the whole record; forget what I said about 'expressive fusion' being an oxymoron, if only for a couple of seconds), before throwing us into more clever riffage on the slow fourth and the fast fifth part. Wow, I'd sure love to see them perform this one live. Then there's the title track - seriously, could one forget the intro riffage? I can only wonder what on earth prevented these guys from writing such flawless passages two or three years before. And when Holdsworth comes up and hits you with more of these gritty solos, after which he leads you into his own menacing composition 'Land Of The Bag Snake', you almost begin to believe that, cut for cut, Bundles might be the Soft Machine's best contribution to music on this planet and maybe beyond it. To this one should also add Holdsworth's pretty, if inessential, acoustic showcase 'Gone Sailing', and, of course, the obligatory stab at ambient patterns in Jenkins' 'The Floating World' which is just as it is - it gives the impression of a world slowly floating and floating. Kinda overlong, of course, but one gets used to ambient compositions being overlong. And you can always turn it off at any moment, too. Funny to say, I initially wanted to only give the record an overall rating of eight, but then it hit me like a ton of bricks... I mean, I thought all of these things were just self-indulgence and meaningless boredom, but then I said: 'Okay, if this is self-indulgence and boredom, then what the hell is Fourth?' Which made me reconsider all the possibilities. Hey, what's not to like here? Great riffs, great guitar playing, atmospherics and professionalism. If these guys are self-indulgent, they certainly deserve it. I still can't consider this the best SM album because of Ratledge's weak spots and occasional misfires in some of the compositions, but it comes damn close, and it's an absolute must for you if you like the Soft Machine, Alan Holdsworth, quality fusion, intelligent music, self-indulgence, finger-flashing, rock climbing, nit picking, window washing, or me. 'Nuff said. P.S. It beats me, but every time I check out this album's sleeve image on any of the Web sites, they always end up giving out the cover for Softs. My edition of Bundles has an old guy letting out a dove from a box on the front cover. I guess I'll just have to acquire me a scanner some day or the other.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9
Adventurous, and close in style to the last record. But where are the riffs?Best song: THE TALE OF TALIESIN
Track listing: 1) Aubade; 2) The Tale Of Taliesin; 3) Ban-Ban Caliban; 4) Song Of Aeolus; 5) Out Of Season; 6) Second Bundle; 7) Kayoo; 8) The Camden Tandem; 9) Nexus; 10) One Over The Eight; 11) Etka.
Softs. Kinda ironic - were the guys just trying to remind the world that they still were the Soft Machine and not just a number or a bundle? But nobody had really the right to do that, except for Ratledge, and Ratledge is gone. The critics jeered about the fact way too much, condemning the band for not changing their name. Still, if we remember that Soft Machine rarely took revolutionary changes in their style (except for maybe the transition from Two to Third), the change in style is not as radical as with, say, Fleetwood Mac (whose music had undergone far more changes than the Softs' even with the rhythm section always staying together). So Ratledge is gone - who cares. His presence wasn't all that necessary on Bundles, and he just did what was supposed to be done - disappeared into the shadows, letting the completely new incarnation of Soft Machine to go on doing the work. Rest in peace, brother.Much worse is the fact that Holdsworth is gone, too - maybe working with Jenkins was far too stiffling for him. In the two guys' place, Jenkins, Babbington, and Etheridge have recruited Alan Wakeman on soprano and tenor sax (so there we go with a bit of brass again) and John Etheridge on guitar; Jenkins is fully settled into the role of keyboard player, and the oboes are gone forever. But the main problem is that I've grown to love the guitarwork on Bundles, and the guitarwork on Softs is nowhere near as distinctive. Oh sure, John Etheridge is a skilled player. He can handle these finger-flashing jazzy chops just as well as Holdsworth - at times his soloing style is practically undistinguishable from Alan's. And on softer, pure-jazz numbers like 'Etka' one gets to admire his technique in a really close-up look. But that's just the problem - Etheridge is a conventional, formulaic jazz guitarist with not a lot of imagination or constructivity. Bundles had, well, bundles of masterful riffs and chord changes; Softs just keeps meandering, going from one short-lived, feeble groove to another and not achieving anything. The entire second half of the album, apart from the pleasant, but forgettable 'Etka', is actually nothing but your average experimentalist crap - tracks like 'Camden Tandem' or 'Kayoo' may hit you over the head at first with their weirdness and loudness, but they don't have anything resembling a real melody. Marshall does his usual drum solo stuff on 'Kayoo' (Lord I hate the guy - what on earth made him think every ensuing Soft Machine album needed one of those?) and 'Camden Tandem' is just a bunch of loud guitar phrases, very aptly played but that's about it. And on 'One Over The Eight' they really go over the eight. The dreadful murky boring fusion is back; they let in that guy Wakeman and play something that hearkens back to the good old days of Fourth. Please. Not to mention that Jenkins' ambient schtick is painfully wearing thin - I hate 'Second Bundle' and I frankly had enough of these atmospheric bleeps. And Eno's ambient albums were already on the horizon anyway. Fortunately, the first four tracks on the album save it from utter ruin. And that's because they never actually tackled the particular style before. 'Aubade', 'The Tale Of Taliesin' and 'Song Of Aeolus' aren't even fusion; in style, they are way closer to the 'traditional' school of progressive rock - by which I mostly mean Genesis or Yes. They go for a more medieval stylistics, including flutes and recorders, really deep, profound layers of sound, and a certain emotionality that was only showing up a bit on Bundles in certain places. Jenkins is credited for all of these, and that makes me forgive him 'Second Bundle'. 'Aubade' opens the album on a short sweet note - like an innocent sweet little pastoral tune; and then they plunge into the epic 'Tale Of Taliesin', with Jenkins playing gothic piano and Etheridge contributing wailing, tear-wrenching guitar parts. The fast part within the composition is more like it - a bit jazzier, but the sound is still deep enough to allow you to soak in some emotions, and Etheridge brews up a storm - you really couldn't tell him from Holdsworth on that one. Meanwhile, all the synth layers and bass overdubs really announce a completely new type of Soft Machine: a band that wants to outgrow the weirdness and the esoteric self-isolationism and come out with something truly epochal. A composition like that might even have put them in the superstar league way back in 1972 or so. Unfortunately, the big problem with Soft Machine was always that they were either way too early or way too late. 'Ban-Ban Caliban' is good, too. I really don't know what the track has to do with Shakespeare's or some other Caliban, but who cares - who ever pays attention to the way the Machine dudes were naming their tracks? That's not Brian Eno for you. But in any case, it's fast and rip-roaring, and quite 'progressive' at the core, as well. And after the storm, the (for once) aptly titled 'Song Of Aeolus' retreats to the medieval atmospheres and the mystique and darkness. No, maybe this entire 'suite' (and I sure call it a suite - these four differently titled tracks have more in common than the five different parts of 'Hazard Profile') is not an atmospheric masterpiece, but it sure comes close, and it just might as well be the best 'progressive' composition of the year 1976, unless you're a Tony Banks fan and spend all your free time grooving along to 'Mad Man Moon'. Ooh, jeez, what a beautiful perspective. So imagine how dumb it is - to follow this minor masterpiece with all that experimental fusion dreck. Man, I was sure disappointed. Even worse, they took that dumb second half and based the entire next album around it. Okay - nearly the entire album, but should you really be nitpicking?
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1978
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 8
Live, but not even touching. An album for diehard Jenkins amateurs - I fail to see its purpose.Best song: SOFT SPACE
Track listing: 1) White Kite; 2) EOS; 3) Odds Bullets And Blades Pt. I; 4) Odds Bullets And Blades Pt. II; 5) Song Of The Sunbird; 6) Puffin; 7) Huffin; 8) Number Three; 9) The Nodder; 10) Surrounding Silence; 11) Soft Space.
The lineup changes here are as follows: Babbington is gone together with Wakeman. In their places, they recruit Steve Cook on bass guitar and Rick Sanders on violin (although the latter appears only in a couple of places). Jenkins and Etheridge are in control; Jenkins writes nine out of eleven tracks, Etheridge is responsible for one more, and Sanders writes the eleventh tune.Any good news? Hardly. At least Marshall doesn't get any co-credits and thus we are relieved from hearing his solos all the time. All the selections (most, at least - I don't believe 'Soft Space' could have been recorded live, see below about that) are indeed performed before an audience, but I never doubted these guys' live skills, and in the good SM tradition they never pronounce even one word. So I hoped to hear if Jenkins sounded hoarse or not, but my hopes have been brutally smashed. :) Ah, well. Let me just drop some shit on this record as a matter of revenge. Like I already hinted at in the previous review, all the worst excesses from Softs are present here, but hardly any of that album's better moments. The music performed at the concert simply goes nowhere, much as I hate that expression. Yes, in a couple of places they do deliver some energetic parts - the brainstorming thump of 'Huffin' at the end of the first side can be hypnotizing, with the guitar, synth, and violin playing that mastodontic riff in unison and all. And Etheridge is just as impressive as last time around; hear him picking his acoustic at lightning speed on 'Number Three' and... oh wait. Isn't that skill actually required of just about any professional jazz guitarist? The guy is just doing his job. Nice job, John. On a couple of tracks the atmosphere is very close to the Machine's Seven - all kinds of wanky solos woven around one 'definitive' keyboard riff. That's how 'The Nodder' is structured, but, unlike 'Nettle Bed', 'Nodder' mostly puts me off to sleep. And when Etheridge goes flashing his chops in the middle of the track for the umptenth time, it's like 'oh no not again'. Sometimes I think that this guy's only desire is to show everybody how many notes he can play in one second. Lord save me from this disgrace. Still, at least 'Nodder' has a riff, and 'Huffin' has some dang energy. None of the other eight tracks have anything. It's simply depressing. These guys just did not want to evolve: once they'd found a new formula, they were sticking with it to death. If you arrive at Alive And Well in chronological order, just like I did, after Bundles and Softs and all the 'numbered' albums, and your DNA is structured in a way that prevents you from hardcore fanatism, I guarantee that your main reaction to every ensuing song on this record will be in full agreement with one of the songs on the Soft Machine's debut record: 'we did it again we did it again we did it again we did it again'... only thing to add is: 'we gone done better'. Truly, 'White Kite' is but a pale shadow of the proto-ambient compositions of yore; 'EOS' is a poor rewrite of 'Tale Of Taliesin'; 'Odds Bullets And Blades Part I' is a laughable attempt at sounding funky, while the second part is just a launchpad for Etheridge's guitar brainstorm. 'Surrounding Silence' is just worth it for hearing some solo violin on a Soft Machine album, but not for anything else. 'Song Of The Sunbird' is atmospheric and pleasant, but... ...stop that. This album stinks, and that's that. Let me pull a Ben Greenstein for once and say that this album is undoubtedly one of the boringest pieces of crap I've heard in a long time. I'm kinda tired of coming up with good things to say about the Soft Machine. I intended to give it a six, just like Fourth, but unfortunately for me, I'm able to feel entertained by self-indulgent finger-flashing, and only for the Wankmeister Etheridge's sake I'm raising the rating to a 7. But wait, didn't I give it an eight? Ah yes. That has a lot to do with 'Soft Space', the last composition on the album. That one really made me jump out of my chair when I heard it. Seriously, now, I couldn't believe my eyes and ears when I learned it was tackled onto the same record, because it sounds nothing like the stuff they've been doing before and, moreover, it predicts the future: it's a skilled proto-technofest. Jenkins (or maybe it's a tape loop) plays this repetitive synth riff a la 'Baba O'Riley', and Marshall backs him up with robotic electronic drumming, while other synth overdubs add up atmospherics and various soloing passages complement the track so it never stops being hypnotic but rarely becomes boring. My main surprise, of course, is due to the fact that this was recorded in 1978. It's purest techno, and as such, better than ninety-nine percent of the techno you hear today - Marshall is playing techno. Although, actually, I suppose it might have been a drum machine... again, wait: as early as 1978? Maybe I'm just plain going crazy. In any case, this chronological anomaly is at least sufficient to make the album really interesting from a 'curiosity' point of view, so I'm adding one more point. Which doesn't detract us from the fact that it's still an anomaly. Or maybe it was the band's inspired response to the punk movement.
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Year Of Release: 1981
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 8
A bombastic, but awkward and rather boring, conclusion to the adventures of Soft Machine.Best song: PANORAMANIA
Track listing: 1) Over 'N' Above; 2) Lotus Groves; 3) Isle Of The Blessed; 4) Panoramania; 5) Behind The Crystal Curtain; 6) Palace Of Glass; 7) Hot-Biscuit Slim; 8) (Black) Velvet Mountain; 9) Sly Monkey; 10) 'A Lot Of What You Fancy...'.
I don't really know if this stuff can really be called "Soft Machine", but it does bear some slight resemblance to the original institution of that name. Basically, though, this is a Karl Jenkins solo project disguised as a Soft Machine album: Jenkins writes all of the tunes and is responsible for most of the arrangements, including the orchestration on several tracks. The band here happens to include Alan Holdsworth once again - the guitar god is back, but apparently not to demonstrate his talents on the six-string, because, frankly, there ain't too much guitar on the album. A lot of keyboards, and a lot of saxes, courtesy of a certain Ray Warleigh and a certain Dick Morrissey. Apart from that, we have the trusty John Marshall on drums, and for some reason the great Jack Bruce himself plays bass on the album. Why? Beats me. He sure didn't make a lot of money on that. Oh yeah, well, I suppose he just wanted to help some old pals.The end product isn't abysmal, but it sure drags - in the best traditions of the most boring Soft Machine albums. Only unlike those albums, which at least boasted some originality and innovations (not that I could exactly express the essence of those innovations, but then again, I'm not the regular fusion guy! Go bug Wilson & Alroy on the subject), Land Of Cockayne sounds almost regressive and stale for 1981. It's supposed to be very pompous: the ten tracks are united into a sort of conceptual suite, dedicated to depicting the pretty scenery of the magical 'Land of Cockayne' 'where life is a round of luxury and idleness'. Well, I'm not exactly aware of whether Mr Jenkins and company had already been able to taste of that luxury, considering poor record sales and all, but there sure is a lot of idleness on this record. It is immaculately produced, and quite atmospheric, I guess, but for the most part, it just masks a lack of creative ideas. That said, let me just state here that if - by any chance - you happen to love the suite and be deeply moved by it, I won't really want to despise your musical taste. It is well-crafted, yes, and it has all the necessary formal ingredients: complex, intricate arrangements, emotional atmospheres caused by clever manipulation of strings, synths and percussion, and even a relative diversity of moods, ranging from the inspiring and romantic to the creepy and ominous. On its own, perhaps, the suite could have been rated a wee bit higher. But taken within any kind of context, whether it be the context of the Soft Machine, or the context of 1981, or the context of all previously recorded and released similar style recordings, it just doesn't go anywhere at all. The tracks are tremendously overdrawn - 'Over 'N' Above' and 'Hot-Biscuit Slim' go over seven minutes when they don't have anything but a warm, pleasant atmosphere to cheer 'em (and us) up. Fortunately, the third of these lengthy tracks, 'Panoramania', happens to have a very memorable and well-constructed main theme, carried forward by an uplifting sax riff, and helps digest the lengthy jazzy organ solo in the middle. But in any case, there's just no energy whatsoever - no energy anywhere. This is purest background music: all these steady mid-tempo piano rolls against lush one-note synthesizer backgrounds are excellent to put on at a party when you want something purring and prawling on in the back of the room. Trying to suck in this music seriously, while concentrating on it, is akin to trying to concentrate on a bowl of cherries - all you can think of is 'well, I've tasted better, and I'll probably taste even better in the future'. Ironically, Land Of Cockayne is one of, if not the most, accessible Soft Machine album. None of those dissonant noisefests. No special effects or distorted organ; well, maybe, just occasionally you will meet a little bit distorted organ, but it will be cleverly muffled so as not to cause your sensitive eardrums any extra trouble. We want you safe and sound, see? I dunno, maybe Jenkins was going for a more commercial sound? But in that case, he missed out on all the trends of 1981 - in that year, an album like this had no commercial potential whatsoever, neither in Britain nor - much less - anywhere else. It was 1981, for God's sake, not 1971! Which brings a whole new meaning to the term 'hopelessly stuck in the Seventies'. The good news now. None of the individual tracks are bad - they're all pleasantly mediocre. Tepid, not particularly inspiring, but always pleasant little jazz-rock ditties, with a touch of contemporary dance rhythms ('Hot-Biscuit Slim', for instance) or a touch of power balladry ('(Black) Velvet Mountain'). It's when they all come out together at ya that the boredom factor really strikes. You know how it goes? Something is boring only when there's a lot of very, very similar objects - otherwise, how can it be boring? And on here, almost everything follows the standard two patterns: synth-led ballad with a romantic sax solo and an economic, moody guitar solo, or synth-led funky dance number with an "aggressive" sax solo and no guitars at all. At times a bass flute drops in, which is nice, but can also get tedious on certain occasions. At other times, Holdsworth plays his guitar like a drugged-out Brian May. This can also get tedious. In all, this is a rather wretched swansong for the Soft Machine - the band that once began as one of the most progressive, revolutionary and limits-shattering creative unit of its time is now reduced to penning second-rate "elevator fusion", as I'd call it. Of course, you could always argue that this band is no longer the Soft Machine, but hey, then you'd have to say that Bundles weren't Soft Machine either, and hey, how do we decide when the Soft Machine actually ceased being Soft Machine? Maybe it was when Kevin Ayers left? Or Robert Wyatt? Or Hugh Hopper? Or Mike Ratledge? Eh? Now there's a good topic for discussion!
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