Soft Machine - Fourth/Fifth
Soft Machine?? Who are Soft Machine I hear you asking!! Essentially they are a prog-rock fusion-jazz band from the late sixties, early seventies. Well, anyone familiar with Daevid Allen will have heard of this awesome band. They formed in 1966 in Canterbury with Daevid Allen on guitar, Mike Ratledge on keyboard, Robert Wyatt on Drums and Kevin Ayers on guitar. Daevid Allen is an Australian who played a large part in so many awesome movements. Gong, Soft Machine, Banana Moon and Daevid Allens University of Errors to name but a few.
This CD album composes of their fourth and fifth releases as a band, cleverly named 'Fourth' and 'Fifth'. So you get two albums for the price of one which in my books is great chat!
In 1968 they played a three month tour of the US opening for the Jimmy Hendrix Experience and recorded their first album in New York. This is an evolving band, a band whose music changes as new musicians come and go with their own influences and styles giving every album it's own personality. Many argue that "Third" is the Soft Machines greatest album but "Fourth" is definitely a close contender.
Soft Machine Fourth is indeed the fourth of the bands albums and was released in the autumn of 1971. The line-up for this record was the Hopper, Ratledge, Wyatt & Dean quartet who were arguably at their creative peak.
The album opens on a song called "Teeth" which is a crazed, confused, perplex, nine minute long, prog-acid-jazz-rock piece that combines brilliant fast sax work with, perhaps, possessed organ playing, sublime flowing double bass lines and fantastic off beat drumming. This track is epic, winding its way along a long jazz filled road of early 70's mystery - sometimes at great speed and at others with the haste of a snail.
Following "Teeth" is "Kings and Queens", a song that has a sort of gracious sadness with an element of poetry that seems to be trying to tell a story...
"Fletchers Blemish" is Elton Dean's stuttering, psychedelic mastermind combining ridiculous sax licks and drumming full of energy. The track opens on a cymbal role that is reminiscent of the tense build up before the rattlesnake attacks in the old westerns. After the tense build up the snake well and truly attacks! Turning his victim into a warbling saxophonic mess.
The real star of this album (Fourth) is "Virtuality". It comes in four parts and spans the best part of twenty minutes. Each part works into the next part seamlessly with a wave of music that seems to build up to a crescendo that never comes. Instead, "Virtuality 4" brings you back down to earth and into the land of chill-out.
I usually only associate the word 'genius' with artists that make you stop in your tracks and think "where did that come from?" - the mind boggles when you start wondering what sort of strange mental land the guys were in when they wrote it.
Fifth was recorded between November 1971 and February 1972 in London but this time Wyatt had moved on and Phil Howard and John Marshall stepped in to the drums. This album opens on "All White" which is a 7/4 jam in E minor and continues the sound of the previous album. There is a minute and a half of contemplative, tentative sax then the drums come in and the mad jazz commences. Awesome organ playing, rolling bass, quality drumming and more of that genius sax playing.
"Drop" opens on the sound of water dripping in a cave and echoed organ sounds that float into the distance but then lead to the inevitable - another frantic 7/4, running sax and organ jaunt! Absolutely fantastic.
"M C" is a quiet, echoing floating piece with fast cymbal work and ghost drumming that slips away... I have a vivid image of psychedelic multi-coloured spirals and Neil from the Young Ones floating into the distance in a dream about hole-ridden shoes.
The fifth song on this album is "L B O". If there was a weak link on this album it could be this. It's essentially a chance for the drummer to showcase his talents (a Moby Dick moment), and although not obtrusive, won't be to everyone's taste. Personally, I find jazz drumming awe-inspiring and enjoy this track just as much as all of the others.
"Pigling Bland" is my personal favourite on fifth. Brilliant funky bass lines and is closer to fusion than the rest of the album and is probably the most accessible song for those who might find the other tracks just a bit too crazy! Jazz café music at its finest.
As with "Fourth" this album ends on an ambient note but this time in the form of "Bone". This is a three and a half minute cymbal-ridden and eighties computer game evil organ jaunt that leaves you wanting to go back for more...
2. Kings and Queens
3. Fletcher's Blemish
4. Virtually Part 1
5. Virtually Part 2
6. Virtually Part 3
7. Virtually Part 4
1. All White
3. M C
4. As If
5. L B O
6. Pigling Bland
I can't for the life of me remember when, where or how much this was picked up for, though my guess would be 5 years ago, Fopp and a fiver. A sneaky peak on Amazon tells me that it is currently retailing at:
--Overall Opinion and Recommendations--
It's incredibly difficult to describe what this record really encapsulates. There is no structure, there are no notes and I suppose that the same piece was never played twice. All of the music is sound, sound that meanders freely between the instruments. The tracks aren't songs, they are unravelling, complex stories that flow in and out of a continually evolving theme. I am never going to grow tired of listening to this album, I love listening and finding new bits - like watching a good film.
Anyone who is into prog rock or fusion jazz should adore this record. Anyone with an open mind and is particularly fond of the Saxophone should have a listen too. It's especially good as it combines two fantastic albums - getting two for the price of one is always a bonus. If you don't know much about this genre/era of music then this is as good a starting place as any. It will lead onto so many other fantastic bands because as mentioned previously it is an evolving band and all of the musicians involved move onto other fantastic projects... Check it out!
If I were to recommend some similar stuff to this I'd say; "Go out and buy Wingful of Eyes by Gong". Please do.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Kings and Queens
3 Fletcher's Blemish
4 Virtuality Part 1
5 Virtuality Part 2
6 Virtuality Part 3
7 Virtuality Part 4
8 All White
10 M C
11 AS IF
13 Pigling Band