Classic Rock Review

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Soft Machine Bundles (1975)


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.

May 25, 2013 Posted by | Soft Machine Bundles | | Leave a comment