Classic Rock Review

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Soft Machine Softs (1976)


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?

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