Isotope – Isotope, Illusion & Deep End
Hell’s teeth! It would seem Head Full of Snow has become a magnet for jazz-rock fusion of late, what with Pierre Moerlen’s Gong and various late-Soft Machine releases arriving on the HFoS doormat. The reviews of the Soft Machine releases are currently on hold, while work is carried out on a “Which is better?” Soft Machine feature, similar, but grander in scope, to the Pink Floyd one from a couple of years back. Coming soon, to a screen near you.
The soon-to-be reissued Isotope albums from the 1970s are the latest to arrive. The fact they successfully bypassed the jazz filter that hums like an electric fence around the letterbox of HFoS Towers, means they’ve won, by nothing other than the Darwinian theory of natural selection, a reprieve and a window to prove their worth on the HFoS stereo system.
Now, you only have to read back through the archives to catch the drift of my fairly well documented feelings towards jazz in all its manifold forms. Nevertheless, perhaps I’ve undergone a sort of jazz epiphany in the last few months, as my previous hostility has thawed a little, allowing me to find enjoyment in some of the post-Third Soft Machine releases, where enjoyment shouldn’t really exist. Likewise, the last few days spent in the company of Isotope’s self-titled 1974 debut, its follow up Illusion, released in the same year, and 1976′s Deep End, has seen my tolerance of jazz rock shift further afield than the latter-day musings of the Softs, for, and I don’t say such things lightly, I quite enjoyed them.
Isotope was an ever-changing beast, formed around the lynchpin of guitarist Gary Boyle and the band’s only other constant, drummer Nigel Morris. Over the course of three albums Isotope would enjoy a line-up in a constant state of flux, with four keyboard-noodlers and three different bassists passing through the ranks. One of the latter was Hugh Hopper, the former Soft Machine member, who lends his particular brand of predatory fuzz bass and composition skills to second album Illusion.
Isotope operated without the horn, so to speak, so there are no drawn out sax solos or ear-scorching trumpet breaks on any of these albums. May I be so bold as to add a “fortunately” to the end of that last sentence?
Instead, Isotope, Illusion and Deep End deliver a rich blend of fluid keyboards, dependable bass, intricate drum patterns and the fiery interjections of Gary Boyle’s tidy guitar licks. Together, these constituent parts produce a fine musical soup of sinewy grooves (I believe that’s the term used in jazz circles) and complex, yet accessible melodies. Deep End even goes so far as to have two keyboardists in the set-up, bouncing off one another and unleashing some excellent synth noodling, as well as the luxuriant purr of that most wondrously seductive of instruments, the Fender Rhodes electric piano.
Full marks go to Esoteric for the remastering and presentation of these three reissues. The sound is crisp and clear, perfectly highlighting the individual performances and allowing the music to breathe and reach forth from the speakers, saturating the senses with its heady brew. Each release comes with a booklet featuring informative notes from the irrepressible Sid Smith and, as with all the Esoteric reissue booklets, are a joy to read. To coin the writer’s own phrase: well done, that man.
In conclusion, it’s the wonderfully atmospheric progressive piece, ‘Sunshine Park’ from Isotope that sums up what’s great about this band for me. Transcending the simple categorisation of jazz fusion, the track has allowed me to challenge my own preconceptions when it comes to such things. Granted, I’ve yet to be seen sporting an Africa pendant and jazz hat and as long as there’s breath in my lungs I’ll resist selling my soul to this particular music form, but Isotope has given me three of the better reasons for not judging a book, or album, by its cover.
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