Soft Machine – Third
Call somebody a dog for a long enough period of time and they’ll begin to respond to the name. So goes the theory that I just made up. Likewise, listen to some borderline jazz-rock enough times and, horror of horrors, you may begin to like it.
As you may already know, jazz in all its multifarious guises doesn’t tend to go down too well within the walls of HFoS towers. If any ever turns up at the gates, lugging a sorry looking and shiftless saxophone solo behind it, nine times out of ten it gets short shrift. By short shrift I mean a blindfold and directions to the nearest motorway.
However, for some reason I have allowed an exception to the rule as far as Soft Machine is concerned. Maybe it’s the fact that their first two albums, Volume One and Volume Two, are absolutely cracking examples of psychedelic/prog rock that deserve a place in the collection of all fellow heathens. Perhaps it’s Mike Ratledge’s ability to steer a steady, yet intoxicating course across a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Or possibly, I’ve taken leave of my senses and a padded cell beckons; this review being nothing more than a warped figment of my fevered imagination.
Whatever the rationale for allowing something jazz-flavoured across the hallowed threshold, it will be the second time such an occurrence has… erm… occurred, with Soft Machine’s ninth album Softs also recently getting a glowing appraisal.
This time around it’s the third album, somewhat aptly titled Third, that’s challenging long held opinions on whether Soft Machine was any good following Volume Two. Previously, HFoS has pitched its tent firmly in the NO! camp, but now the tide is beginning to turn.
Yes, Third holds little in common with its majestically off-the-wall forbearers, such is the weight of the dramatic shift in musical tone, but there are still tenuous threads linking this 1970 album to the days when Soft Machine were still the definite article. Obviously, there’s the fact Robert Wyatt was still a functioning member of the group and his contribution to Third, ‘Moon in June’, once again demonstrates the unorthodox vocal style that made the first two albums so memorable. The jazz edge hinted at on Volume Two is fully explored this time around and Third marks the transitional period between Soft Machine’s psychedelic/underground rock persona and that of leading jazz-fusion exponents. The following album, Fourth, would see Wyatt depart, unhappy with the direction the band had taken and it is noted that he recorded the progressive ‘Moon in June’ pretty much alone, such was his growing isolation within the group he helped form.
Third was originally released as a double LP, with one song taking up each side (that’s four songs, for those not paying attention). The other founding member, Mike Ratledge once again works wonders on the keyboards, and it is he who composes the lion’s share of the tracks, contributing both ‘Slightly All the Time’ and ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’, the clearest indicators of the jazz-fusion sound to which Soft Machine was transmigrating.
The one real throwback to the Soft’s previous eccentric adventures in the underground is the fantastically eclectic and heart-stoppingly frenetic ‘Facelift’. Credited to bassist Hugh Hopper, who replaced Kevin Ayers for the preceding album, it’s a riot of ideas, recorded live and incorporating looped and reverse tape effects to enhance the disorientating quality of this 19 minute brew.
‘Facelift’ and ‘Moon in June’, the latter being the last ever Soft Machine recording to feature vocals, hint at the band’s acid-soaked past, while ‘Slightly All the Time’ and ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’ look to its fusion-bathed future. Mike Ratledge’s keyboard sorcery remains a reason to write home and despite my natural jazz-aversion, Third has succeeded in thawing my hostility to the form, maybe just a wee smidgen. Not a lot, but enough for me to be giving the Soft Machine albums Fourth through to Seven a reappraisal.
Just don’t expect me to be inviting the likes of Zzebra or Nucleus around for dinner, any time soon.
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