Lately I’ve been really into theses guys, constantly listening to this record becoming more and more impressed every time I hear it. I’m still getting used to the style of twenty minute songs with sections flowing into each other. I see the possibilities it creates as in creating an imaginary story or “world” if you want to call it that. Third definitely creates a cool atmosphere. From trippy sound collages to jazz freak outs a lot of ground is covered. The instrumentation is also amazing; I really appreciate the great tone they are able to pull out of their instruments in this one.
Soft Machine was founded by college dropouts Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers and a constantly changing lineup in 1966 as a jazz/psychedelic project. They can be sourced as one of the leading bands in the British progressive rock scene including bands like Caravan, Gong and Matching Mole. The first album they released was in 1968 entitled Volume ONE and following in 1969 with Volume TWO this continued until of course there was THIRD in 1970. They continued to make jazz and father out there albums after Third.
I would highly recommend headphones when listening to Third as I know from experience that is quite hard to hear soft melodies and pitches as cars are whizzing past you every 10 seconds. “But after all it’s only leisure time isn’t it.”
Third begins on “Facelift” with very soft low pitches and slight combustion like organ playing random rhythms with an occasional note bends. The clipping robot tones that follow give a great example of what is to be expected for the rest of the album. Don’t let the dream like state turn you off, hopefully it will grow on you like it did for me. Overall it just forms a great tension for when the song breaks and it does at seven minutes in with a completely crack fifed jazz freak-out, it’s so bloody crazy. I mean it’s just great material to freak your family out with blasting it at top volume. About Halfway through the song the direction completely changes as the instruments fade away and a flute solo ensues. Then the last ten minutes are a hard to describe jam extending from the main jam with the occasional saxophone sounding like it has a sore throat, great stuff.
Next song is “Slightly All The Time” continuing on the jazz jam foundation already laid. Usually by this point of the album I’m dazing off or not really paying that great attention to it, I’ll admit. This is one point of the album where its sounds a lot better as background music. I’ve yet to get used to it perhaps, but I still love the groove at 8 minutes. Actually most of the song is insanely funky which is pretty good for the closest thing to come to filler on the whole album.
The Third song “Moon In June” is a masterpiece, not just on this album but of all time. I’m amazed at how many times I’ve listened to it and haven’t tired of it at all. It’s actually the only song on the album with vocals, the highlight of the album in my opinion. Robert Wyatt can hit some great notes and the overall way he sings is amazing. It starts on a piano line and the line.
“On a dilemma between what I need and what I just want
Between your thighs I feel a sensation
How long can I resist the temptation?”
It’s clearly a song about lust and love and quite powerful one thanks to accompanying organ that follows his voice. The first three minutes are without a doubt the best part of the song. The bass and drums create so many hooks it’s mad. “Moon in June” isn’t without humor though, just before the first organ solo thingy Robert seems to have forgotten about the direction of the song going ‘Oh! Wait, a minute”. After the solo the song hit’s a happy streak with bouncy hooks and lyrics about being home again. The vocals will put you in a trance trust me. At 10 minutes the guitar appears a perfect distorted riff and the organ launches on a very enjoyable jam. Everything goes into overdrive and feedback fills your speakers and then suddenly it draws back again going into an interlude held together by just one chord repeated over and over again. Then you hear something extremely strange, a violin speeding up and down like a broke tape player creating some very alien sounds. Other various sounds fill up what little space isn’t already consumed and you enter experimental noise bliss. A perfect way to end the song.
Finishing up the album we have “Out Bloody Rageous”. It’s really a hard to explain to feeling I get when the soft dream like sounds come in. I’m actually kind of afraid of it; it makes my heart drop to my stomach at times. I like to listen to this song before sleeping because of just how great ear candy it is, it just relaxes you and makes thought clearer. Now not the whole song is one big dream sequence, at five minutes in a groove similar to the freak-out in “Facelift” enters with some very enjoyable horn playing. One of my favorite parts of the album. The Freak-out lasts six minutes and then goes back to the opening sounds. Like the rest of the songs on Third the second half is reserved for improve time that’s hard to get into detail. Third ends magnificently on more beautiful noise, Bravo!
So in conclusion, I really dig Soft Machine and their sound. I understand some of you might not dig it but I encourage everyone to at least listen to some of their earlier stuff like One and Two. It may not click at first but give it a try. As for this album, I have enjoyed its company and happiness it gives me, “Moon in June” is the best song ever!
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?
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.