|2. Slightly All The Time|
|3. Moon In June|
For their first two albums, Soft Machine presented themselves to the world as quirky psychedelic hipsters of above-average intelligence. The tracks alternated between short, crisp songs with to-the-point lyrics, and jazz-oriented jams. The band's attitude through this was one of semi-ironic detachment, conveying a message of "We're young and talented, and we know it -- but we're not going to get all in-your-face about it, so just sit back and enjoy the tunes". There were some distinctions between the albums, of course, but the mixture of virtuosity and congeniality is equally spread over both.
Third changed the band forever. With its release, Soft Machine moved headlong into the territory of extended jazz-psychedelic jams, mostly of an instrumental nature. While the first two albums clocked in at around the standard time of 40 minutes each, Third featured four side-song compositions, each of which was 15-20 minutes in length. The quirkiness and the skill were still there in spades, but the compositions were now considerably more elaborate. And the band's makeup was different too. The first two albums were set around a core trio of band members -- Wyatt, Ratledge and Kevin Ayers on the first, and Hugh Hopper replacing Ayers on the second. Third brought in a much broader palette of musical sounds, incorporating various wind instruments and a violin into the overall mix.
The result was a complex and controversial album, akin in some respects to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, which was released at around the same time. And like Bitches Brew, Third has also attained a legendary status over the years, representing an apex of sorts in the band's catalogue. While detractors can be counted on to dismiss the album as indulgent noodling filtered with unlistenable noise, there are many who would cite it as the greatest accomplishment in the band's convoluted history.
Which brings up another point. One unfortunate, but inescapable, fact about the Soft Machine's history is that the band entered a period of decline after Third's release. They released many more albums throughout the rest of the 1970s, but never again recorded anything as innovative -- or as qualitatively good -- as Third. Wyatt's departure after the recording of Fourth was obviously a factor in this, but it can't stand as the only explanation -- it seems more reasonable to conclude that they simply slipped into degenerative entropy, continuing to focus on jazz- oriented jams without adding enough thematic diversity into the mix. This isn't to say that the later Soft Machine albums weren't good, in their own way ... but they weren't as good as what came before. Some have said that Soft Machine stopped being an important band after Third. This may be harsh, but it's probably correct.
( I should confess that I haven't heard Sixth or Rubber Riff yet. It's possible, albeit unlikely, that these albums would cause me to revise my opinions.)
So, then ... what precisely can the listener expect to hear on Soft Machine's last important album?
"Facelift" (taken from two live performances -- Fairfield Hall in Croydon, 4 January 1970, and Mother's Club, Birmingham, 11 January 1970) features a droning lead-in, followed by a spot of electronic madness from Ratledge. The keyboard rigs were obviously put through a bit of strain during the shows in question, to judge from the results -- and while the results are nowhere near so crude as Keith Emerson's contemporary efforts, the chaotic effect is much the same. The horns emerge after a few minutes of this, and the band proceeds into a King Crimson-esque instrumental (or is it the other way around? parts of KC's "A Voyage To The Center Of The Cosmos" sound like they might have been inspired by this number). The band then shifts to a different lead theme, which provides the basis for the second half of the track (which also features its share of avant-garde noise art, flute solos, and backwards recording tricks). In sum, the track is a great success -- an incredible piece of experimentation that sounds like the culmination of Soft Machine's creative buildup over the previous few years. It's also a wild ride, though (paradoxically) not a crazy one -- the band always seems to be in control of the on-stage madness. (As an aside, Wyatt's sparse drum kit sound is more than a bit surreal in this setting - though no less enjoyable for that).
"Slightly All The Time" was presumably put on the album as a deliberate juxtaposition to "Facelift". After the intensity of the previous number, this track surprises by starting with a straightforward bass line from Hopper! It then builds up into a solid, jazz-oriented number -- still fairly quirky, but otherwise a more serious composition. The wind instruments frequently take idyllic solos here (especially the flutes), and Robert Wyatt contributes what may be the best hi-hat solo of the early progressive movement at the track's mid-point. There's not much more to say here -- everyone does their part well, and the piece is great to listen to.
"Moon In June" is the only track on the album with lyrics (Dobson sings for a bit on "Facelift", but only wordless vocals). Perhaps not surprisingly, its also something of a throwback to the band's first two albums ... in the early minutes, at least. The band is temporarily reduced to a bass-drums-keys combination again -- all played by Wyatt, strangely enough. Wyatt's lyrics focus (not surprisingly) on an existential dilemma regarding some sort of romantic adventure, ironically weighing the issue of "want vs need" in a mock-solipsistic manner. Wyatt takes an charming bass lead in this section, incidentally -- perhaps the most distinctive bass part on the album. The musical panorama diversifies again for the last half of the number, as Wyatt's shift to wordless vocals leads the band into an extended jazz-rock section. There's also a bit of production trickery towards the end of the track, with the pitch slowing down and speeding up again every few seconds (a plus for those into weirdness, obviously). Ratledge also gets in a great organ solo, and we're three-for-three overall.
And that brings us to "Out-Bloody-Rageous", the most paradoxical track on the album. The track is structured as something of a palindrome -- its first few minutes consist of a multi-layered organ solo from Ratledge, while its last few minutes consist of a similar work on the electric piano. These are both excellent, as is the extended band section which follows the initial organ bit (said band section may be the best thing on the entire album, in fact).
So why is the track down by a half-star from the rest of the album? That would be because of its middle section. After the aforementioned band section fades out, Ratledge takes a brief lead on solo piano, which leads in turn to a slower section, dominated by saxophones. And it's here, more than anywhere else on the album, that one can hear the clues towards the Soft Machine's subsequent decline. The sax solo isn't terrible by any means, but it brings out a sort of not-completely-inspired spirit in the band -- a tragic harbinger of things to come. Of course, things rapidly improve by the track's next thematic shift, but the damage has been done -- and the evidence of future troubles is interwoven into the heart of the composition. Thankfully, one needn't dwell on it for too long.
If you are a serious collector of progressive music, you should probably have this album. If you're simply curious about Soft Machine, it's one of only two releases which you absolutely must purchase, the other being the two-CD combination of the band's first two albums. From there, you can navigate your way into the band's later career at your own discretion.
And anyone who's simply into the eccentric side of prog should have the album as well.
(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 2 Jun 2001)