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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Welcome To The Machine

The article on Soft Machine in the Q Prog rock special whetted my appetite for the forthcoming book by Graham Bennett, Out-Bloody-Rageous. Out later this year, I'm really looking forward to reading this one as Soft Machine have been cruelly underwritten in accounts of the jazz or rock worlds. Out-Bloody-Rageous also happens to be the name of a new Softs compilation reviewed on Amazon by none other than Dick Heath who writes in part

"I've just taken my first full listen of 'Out-Bloody-Rageous', so recently received from Amazon.UK, taking great pleasure in hearing some favourite tunes. This is the official double CD compilation of Soft Machine music taken from the albums 'Soft Machine' to 'Seven', i.e. the ABC/Probe Records to the CBS/Columbia Records period - although I have to ask why has it taken so long? But thank goodness it is here. (Now, one can only hope Harvest Records will issue a complimentary third album to give a full coverage of the band's career).

As a freak for nearly all and particularly their first 3 or 4 albums, I'm delighted at the choice of tracks taken here. Following the path taken by the now rare 'Triple Echo' 3 LP set (issued by Harvest Records some 25 years ago), CD 1 starts with a couple of their early single records, and then quickly gets to my favourites from their first self-titled album and 'Volume 2'. And great news, these have been 24 bit remastered (as I begged in print elsewhere for quite some time). A favourite of Gary Lucas and myself 'Hope For Happiness/Joy Of A Toy' is no longer a muddy mix; at last clarity and instrument separation - I can only hope that the whole of both albums will be available in remastered forms very soon! A couple of tracks from 'Third' finishes CD 1 - so providing a break from the Wyatt-influenced Machine and the subsequent post-Wyatt Machine.

CD 2 shows Machine in jazz rock jazz fusion mode and with a number of tracks each taken taken from 'Fourth' through to 'Seven'. These reflect the high quality of young British (and New Zealand) jazz musicians playing some splendid electric jazz, who passed through the ranks - and as several did with Nucleus. It also should remind every jazz historian, that neglecting Soft Machine for any future jazz history will be a major omission from the story of British jazz's evolution in the 70's - Note: earlier this year, BBC 4's series Jazz Britannia, was not guilty of such an omission!

'Out-Bloody-Rageous' is great compilation, and in some way better than the 2 double CDs 'BBC 1967-1971' & 'BBC 1971-1974' (Hux Records) for giving a "history". Anybody wanting to discover what Machine was about and how they changed during their formative period, and this set should be instantly recommended as the perfect recording to start. ." Read Dick's full review here

I’ve always thought the Jenkins-era Softs got a bum rap from many of the various commentators. True, the music would become a touch too anodyne and symmetrical in its delivery, losing some of the crooked ambience emanating from its psychedelic origins and that was down to Jenkins' influence. However to point to this period and dismiss it as merely the point where the jazz-rock rot set in would be a mistake.

Though the live and studio double album, Six (Softs’ Ummagumma?) brings Jenkins’ trademark cyclical ‘patterns’ music to the fore it nevertheless has a dream-like vibe that will reward the open-minded listener; notably Chloe And The Pirates and The Soft Weed Factor. This feel was consolidated in what I regard as the real jewel in the crown of this particular period, Seven.

First released in the autumn of 1973, it bursts into life with Nettle Bed, a prickly, pointed riff-erama workout on the bass-end of the Fender Rhodes piano, topped with a quirky graze of a synth solo from the by-then sole surviving founder Softy, Mike Ratledge. Quicker than you can jab a pin in the patchboard of your suitcase syhthi, the beautiful ballad Carol Ann slowly unfurls; a gorgeous slo-mo twirl of sine-waves and six string bass guitar (with tremolo arm!) courtesy of Roy Babbington. Having guested on Fourth and Fifth, ex-Delivery and Nucleus stalwart Babbington had taken over from the departing Hugh Hopper. His bubbling bass leaps out on Day’s Eye, perhaps the most controversial track on the album. Credited to Ratledge, it bares a remarkable resemblance to Arjen’s Bag, a track from the 1969 John McLaughlin album, Extrapolation. The similarities between the two tracks are striking even to the point of both having the principle melody delivered via baritone sax played in McLaughlin’s case by John Surman.

Whether an unconscious lift or not, there’s no denying the fiercely original trademark sound that erupts from Mike Ratledge’s organ, making its first dramatic appearance on the album. That frenzied, demented wasp-in-a-bottle fuzzed-up Lowery was a bristling signature with a sting in its tail. Though Caravan and Egg would both commandeer the device it was never as sharp or spiny as when Soft Machine deployed it.

After the stern push and shove of Bone Fire and Tarabos (with a storming soprano sax solo the ominous percussion solo by John Marshall, DIS with reversed tapes and Chinese cymbals brings the original Side One to a terse and abrupt close. What follows is best viewed as a side-long two-hander. From the ruminative, coddled doze of Snodland’s chimes and echo-perplexed piano, there emerges a stately parade through the Karl Jenkins songbook. The dusky tones of his baritone and soprano meld surprisingly well with the highly-wrought organ lines held crisply in place by Babbington and embellished by Marshall’s nimble kit work throughout.

Jenkins would be the first to admit that he was always a reluctant soloist and on the sprightly Block, he’s content to let Ratledge steal the show with a striking, typically caustic outing; the numbers of motifs and themes he explores here is astonishing and surely one of his best performances anywhere on record. Coming to a dead stop and barely pausing for breath, Down The Road opens pensively with a fluttering, evocative touch of recorder that brings memories of the oblique Bone that closed their fifth album.

A lugubrious climax is reached when Babbington dusts off the string bass to supply a splendid bowed solo across the lurching and choppy rhythms before receding into the cosseted glow of The German Lesson and it’s equally amorphous echoing partner, The French Lesson. Here, layers of Fender Rhodes are looped and piled one atop the other, producing a rich and glistening ending that has a vestigial connection to Third’s Riley-infused glory days but is satisfying enough in its own right.

Don’t believe the received wisdom that says this period is a little more than bleak fusion-fest of technique over content, devoid of any emotional impact. Though the flamboyant passions that originally ignited Soft Machine were by now burning low, the dying embers that Seven perhaps represented, showed them more than capable of radiating the warm rosy glow of excitement and raising the temperature.

In 1975, Bundles, documented Alan Holdsworth’s brief tenure in the ranks. With its medley of themes and interlocking tunes (amongst Jenkins’ best) the studio album was fatally wounded by a curiously flat production that failed to capture the substantial firepower generated in concert. With Ratledge gone, Jenkins spent the inheritance bringing in high-end achievers such as John Etheridge, Ray Warleigh, violinist Rick Saunders and (briefly) uber-bassist Percy Jones before finally grinding to a halt in 1981.

Standing proud and tall between the transitional wobble of Six and the frankly forgettable final trip that was The Land of Cockayne, Seven has a satisfying thematic cohesion and elegance that remains richly persuasive and that still has a bounce in its step 35 years after being recorded.


Sandy Starr said...

'...the frankly forgettable final trip that was The Land of Cockayne...'

Sid, I've given you hassle for this sentiment before, and I'll do it again. The Land of Cockayne is a beautiful album that I play often, and I think it's very underrated and a great way for the band to bow out.

Yes, it sounds slick and smooth and easy on the ear and all that jazz. But Jenkins' compositions are wonderful and the musicianship on the album is formidable. Actually, if there's an album that could do with the deluxe CD remastering treatment, this is it.

Agreed though, the album is a world away from the band's earlier efforts. It's a bewilderingly eclectic band, when you take its history as a whole and its many line-ups - not unlike King Crimson in that respect, although ploughing a different furrow musically.

I hope Graham Bennett's book is as comprehensive, open-minded and all-encompassing as your biography of KC. (Which I keep thinking deserves a second edition, to take account of new developments. But then on second thoughts, why not let things unfold and then write about them with some perspective?)

Sid Smith said...

Hi there Sandy,
Long time no speak – great to hear from you. I take your point regarding some of the compositions and musicianship on the album. What it lacks for me is an identity, the “thing” that somehow makes it Soft Machine. OK I realise how nebulous that sounds but when I interviewed Jenkins a couple of years ago, he readily admitted that the album was essentially a KJ solo effort with the Soft Machine moniker resurrected by the label as a marketing strategy at the time. The theory was it would sell more under that banner than under his own name; Adiemus similarly. That said, I might well give it the once over again tonight as a result of your prompt.

Sandy Starr said...

It's interesting that Jenkins said that about it being a solo effort with the band name on it. I did notice that only him and the drummer were credited as band members proper in the sleevenotes - the army of other musicians, including Allan Holdsworth (now HIS solo stuff is amazing), were down as guests.

I guess I should be listening to more of what Jenkins has done since SM.

Dee Jay Aitch said...

Rumour has it Karl Jenkins and John Cale were in the Welsh National Youth Orchestra at the same time - any confirmation please?

Dee Jay Aitch said...

Listening hard to CD 2 of 'Out Bloody Rageous', I get to feel the compiler has over-emphasised the minimalism (a la Terry Riley), which Ratledge and then Jenkins employed from 'Third' onwards. As a small group of devote Machine fans (myself from 'Volume 2' onwards - I discovered the joys of the first album some time later), there was a general feeling, that we could can take the increasingly complex jazz, but the minimalism (or cyclic music as it was often called then) was becoming increasingly worked out. Indeed, the cyclic repetitive nature of the Rileyisms, might mean the Machine musical spiralling up their own back passages to disappear completely. Fortunately with Jenkins' reluctance to be the front player for Machine, some fresh ideas were brought in with Holdsworth and then John Etheridge. Unfortunately Machine continued to the bitter end and a couple too many inferior albums.

Interesting what 25 to 30 years rest and maturity did for Soft Works, and the more recent other son of Soft Machine.............

A question: did any other jazz-based group use minimalism, or did Soft Machine work the motherlode bare?

Sid Smith said...

John Cale is two years older than Karl Jenkins - not that this nugget really helps of course but it makes it possible I suppose. Even though I'm a fan of the Jenkins period Softs I recognise and accept that what we might call the law of diminishing returns took its toll.

Ultimately though I think their decline as an innovative outfit was due more to the lack of creative diversity in respect of the main writers.

In the early days Ratledge, Hopper, Dean and Wyatt all contributed and thus more variety and tension, but with Ratlegde's period as a composer largely over by 1971 and without anyone else stepping up to the plate it was inevitable that the prolific Jenkins would become the main man.

As for the question of other bands delving into minimalism...scratching my head on that one.

dee jay aitch said...

I have to confess I've left this question of jazz and minimalism at a couple of other discussion group sites. The following from Doug Watson in the USA is the only reply as yet but clealry some thought and experience been put to it:

An immediate suggestion is Don Cherry's 1975 collaboration with Terry
Riley in 1975. I think this recording used to be float through in the
torrents, (though I've only mp3 copies). And yes, the result is exactly
as you'd imagine.

Hmm. John Surman's electronic loops and saxophone are possibilities
(I'd recommend the unfortunately rare S.O.S. album with Skidmore and
Osborne, though the ECM titles are similar ideas if smoother) though
are likely too static to be considered "minimalistic", at least in the
Riley/Glass/Reich schoolyard.

I seem to recall Horacee Arnold's TALES OF THE EXONERATED FLEA having
some Ratledge-y modal bases but would have to double check-- my copy
isn't readily available at this time.

Achim Reichel's ERHOLUNG has Jochen Petersen blowing sax'n'flute over
Reichel's "echogitarre". Lotsa repetitive guitar riffing using an
additive and substractive process not entirely dissimilar to that
favoured by Philip Glass. Would this count?


Interesting comment about John Surman work. At least two solo albums released by ECM (e.g. Road To St Ives), have Surman playing synth and woodwind. Whether Surman had preset patches on the synth, which he triggered and then played free jazz sop sax (or clarinet) to an admittedly cyclic backing track, or was that backing track played in real time and sampled, immediately before he took up the sax, being stored and played back as augmented loops...? (I suppose as a parellel, what Geddy Lee did in Rush before attacking his bass guitar).

Talking John Surman, anybody interested in the development of British jazzrock, must listen to 'Way Back When' (another marvellous raid on the lost recording archives by Cuneiform Records). Recorded in 1969 the album predates Nucleus and Machine's 'Third', and is quite different jazz concept from either 'Where Fortune Smiles' or 'Extrapolation' (i.e the two British jazz albums Surman recorded with John Mclaughlin in the same year).


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