Mark Hollis, 1955-2019
Scott Walker, 1943-2019
Mark Hollis, 1955-2019
Scott Walker, 1943-2019
One of Robert Fripp’s “devil bugs” caught up with the Krueger household on February 24 — the same day a “bomb cyclone” hit West Michigan, causing a 30-degree temperature drop in 24 hours, along with whiteout snowstorms. It’s taken this long for us (and the region) to emerge from hibernation — but through the depths of winter to the cusp of spring, music has taken sad songs and made them better.
That very day late last month, I trekked across the state to catch The Neal Morse Band’s Great Adventour stop in suburban Detroit; Neal and his merry crew (including son Will and daughter Jayda at the merch table) didn’t disappoint. As I anticipated, The NMB’s live take on The Great Adventure was even tighter, more driven and more finely honed than the fine studio album (first half glitches to Morse’s keyboard rig notwithstanding).
Hearing all of TGA in one go brought home how thoroughly integrated the new effort is. The key musical themes (as well as flashbacks to The Similitude of A Dream) aren’t just repeated, they’re developed in near-symphonic ways: transposed, transformed rhythmically and harmonically, recapped in unexpected contexts throughout the work. Kaleidoscopic contrasts of rhythm, instrumental color, vocal textures (mainly from Morse, guitarist Eric Gillette, keyboardist Bill Hubauer) and tonality meshed smoothly with drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy’s George’s badass forward propulsion, ably mirroring the lyrical highs and lows of another journey to the Celestial City.
In sum, TGA is a genuinely impressive concept work, marked by ambition, intelligence, technique and sentiment in just the right proportions. The result at the end of each set (and the encore medley that covered Morse’s entire solo career, ending the night where it began) was sustained, extended, unforced ecstasy in the audience — a feeling that, I believe, couldn’t have been manufactured or manipulated into existence. I couldn’t help think that, consciously or not, Morse’s recent work fully embodies the ongoing ideal of American revivalist religion — an ideal, whatever its flaws, that’s been a cultural constant from the Puritan theologizing of Jonathan Edwards to the rough-hewn democratic juggernaut of today’s Pentecostalism.
And, in the inspired, paradoxically complex simplicity of its drive to the finish, The Great Adventure live reminded me of nothing so much as Gustav Mahler’s massive Resurrection Symphony. Like Mahler, Morse and band embraced everything that came to hand, running the risk of grandiosity to shape a new musical world — a payoff acknowledged by the heartfelt, fervent applause of the 300 souls in attendance.
As I exited the CTA Green Line on a crisp, clear Chicago Sunday, Reggie’s Rock Club and Music Joint beckoned with the promise of Progtoberfest’s final day: twelve hours of sixteen bands on two stages. Constantly unfolding delight or endless endurance test? Only one way to find out.
(Notes for after the jump: links are provided to bands’ online presence — website, Facebook or Bandcamp pages — wherever possible. An asterisk [*] by a band’s name means I bought one or more of their CDs at the event; A cross [+] means the band didn’t have CDs for sale — but their music is now on my want list. Here we go …)
Continuing the saga of Soft Machine, currently on a 50th anniversary world tour (coming to North America this fall). Click here for Part One, covering the band’s psychedelic years of 1966-69; Click here for Part Two, covering the jazz-rock years of 1970-1973. The Softs’ new album Hidden Details can be ordered at Bandcamp.
Seven albums on, Soft Machine was stuck. Founding organist Mike Ratledge was still around, but his contributions had diminished to an ongoing flow of “cosmic tinkles” — minimalist electric piano patterns enhanced by tape delay effects. Keyboardist/reed player Karl Jenkins had taken up the compositional slack, but the music was edging into blandness onstage, no matter how much oomph bassist Roy Babbington and drummer John Marshall kicked up. At Marshall’s suggestion, the Softs decided to freshen their palette with a different solo voice — namely, Allan Holdsworth on guitar.
Recruiting a guitarist for a band that hadn’t had one since 1968 seemed a drastic move, but the gamble paid off handsomely. The young Holdsworth brought guts and brio back to Soft Machine’s sound, digging deep to play off Babbington and Marshall, spitting out energetic improvisations that channeled his idols John Coltrane and John McLaughlin. Equally fired up, Jenkins and Ratledge composed extended suites with plenty of space for blowing, and the Softs hit the road with a completely new set. Archive releases from that year’s world tour such as Cuneiform’s Switzerland 1974 and MoonJune’s Floating World Live (recorded in England in early 1975) amply display the impressive results.
The excitement carried over to 1975’s Bundles, the Softs’ first album for EMI’s Harvest label. The side-long epic “Hazard Profile” is the perfect introduction to the new sound: Holdsworth’s light-speed melodicism nicely complements Jenkins’ classically tinged ruminations; Babbington and Marshall groove relentlessly; Ratledge even provides a skittering synthesizer solo that nods at his salad days. The players are in full flight throughout, locking in over a variety of backgrounds and moods; there’s new room for acoustic interludes (Holdsworth’s “Gone Sailing”) and multi-sectioned proggy workouts (the Jenkins/Holdsworth mashup “Bundles/The Land of the Bag Snake”). Even the “cosmic tinkles” get a shot of adrenalin in Ratledge’s unstoppable crescendo “The Man Who Waved at Trains/Peff” and Jenkins’ lush, spacious “The Floating World.” The future looked bright again.
But, predictably for those who know both Soft Machine and Holdsworth history, it wasn’t that simple; Holdsworth left just as Bundles was released, joining Miles Davis alumni Tony Williams’ New Lifetime. With more touring already booked, the group quickly tapped up-and-coming guitarist John Etheridge (Holdsworth’s suggestion) for the open slot. Etheridge fit the bill, with his spare, muscular style leaving more space for his bandmates to shine onstage.
Recording the next album brought further changes: Alan Wakeman (Rick’s cousin!) joined on hard-charging solo sax, so Jenkins could focus on keys and composing; the new tunes drew sharper lines between tightly arranged prog/classical movements and vamps to improvise over; and Mike Ratledge’s long exodus from Soft Machine culminated in contributions to just two tracks. Despite all these shifts, 1976’s Softs had plenty of energy and appeal, a striking variety of well-crafted textures, space for free blowing on Side Two (dig “The Camden Tandem” and the end of “One Over the Eight”), and first-class playing throughout.
Still, poor record sales and precarious finances took their toll. Wakeman bailed on the eve of another tour, replaced by Ray Warleigh; afterwards, Warleigh and Babbington left, with the bass chair taken first by Brand X’s Percy Jones, then by Steve Cook; violinist Ric Saunders became the second soloist, lending a Mahavishnu Orchestra tinge to the proceedings. By 1977, the band was actively splintering, with members taking lucrative side gigs to make ends meet and a variety of live substitutes (even Holdsworth!) filling in as necessary.
Given the situation, recording Soft Machine’s 1977 Paris gigs was deemed the way forward to another album. Disaster ensued: equipment was held up at customs, safety officials limited attendance, an assistant recording engineer failed to turn up, and Etheridge and Cook’s instruments were stolen after the first night. And yet Alive and Well: Recorded in Paris comes off remarkably well: the new music is solid; the band interplay on “Huffin'” and “The Nodder” is stunningly on point, and even the Giorgio Moroder-style disco funk concoction “Soft Space” (complete with uncredited contributions from Ratledge) clicks. (Note that Esoteric Recordings’ 2010 reissue features an extra disc of live outtakes.)
And then — nothing. Well, nothing except 1981’s Land of Cockayne — in actuality, producer Mike Thorne’s invitation for Karl Jenkins to record with both rock and orchestral forces. Despite a stellar cast (including Softs alumni Marshall, Warleigh and Holdsworth, plus bass legend Jack Bruce) and echoes of past glories like “Panoramania” and “Sly Monkey,” Land of Cockayne is a completely different beast, the most mainstream music ever released under the Soft Machine name. Ultimately, it proved a marker toward the rest of Jenkins’ career, occasionally in collaboration with Mike Ratledge: advertising jingles (including the inescapable-for-a-time DeBeers Diamond music), then the 1990s classical crossover project Adiemus, then a full-blown career as an orchestral composer, culminating with a 2015 knighthood.
It had been a good run, but after one last week-long London residency in 1984, Soft Machine was no more. Still, the legacy of the band lived on in its recordings and in the work of its numerous alumni until …
But that’s an unlikely tale for another time.
— Rick Krueger
This summer saw the long-awaited second release from Melody’s Echo Chamber: Bon Voyage arrived after five stop-and-go and, at times, tortuous years. On its June 15 release date Melody Prochet (vocal, guitar, synthesizers, violin, viola) wrote on her Facebook band page,
Today is a day life forced me to give up waiting for… ‘Bon Voyage’ is a little monster I hope will find it’s home in some of your hearts and…if not soothe, will resonate somehow positively…
So it comes down to listeners interacting with this beast, a theme-park ride of a record, while the artist, one imagines, pulls the covers over her head. First off, it is little, clocking in at a compendious 33 minutes. But given its twists and turns, its density and scope, the brevity of the work allows repeat listens to work out its strange but satisfying logic.
As I told a friend: I can’t imagine a Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson or Todd Rundgren or Wayne Coyne not really liking this record.
Prochet (b. 1987, Puyricard, France) began working on her sophomore project and releasing tracks (e.g. “Shirim”) in 2013. Rumor has it she threw away some of the material. Then last year she was involved in an undisclosed accident resulting in serious injuries. Her fans despaired until Bon Voyage was dropped in time for the summer solstice.
Melody’s Echo Chamber (2012) was readily classified as “psych pop.” But for those who tire of musical taxonomies Bon Voyage is as open borders as they come. The opening track “Cross My Heart” begins with composite acoustic guitar chords followed by a swelling string arrangement, a mid ’60s Wilsonish verse, then a beat box section folding into a flute and percussion-driven jazz passage embellished with some fanatical bass lines. The lyrics here, as throughout the album, flow freely between English and French. We’re escorted back to the opening chords for a reprise of the main (?) verse and a riff-laden, cinematic flourish.
As soon as “Breathe In, Breathe Out” drops a power rock groove the listener’s head-bobbing is interrupted by a trance section before the track accelerates again to its finish, the opening themes reworked but almost unrecognizable in the sonic whiplash.
Prochet cites composer Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992) as a favorite, and perhaps what we catch on this record are flecks of his emphasis on color and unusual time signature.
The first of two foci on this record is “Desert Horse,” pairing a dark Middle Eastern groove (including on old Black Sabbath riff) with a bright but plaintive chorus,
So much blood
On my hands
And there’s not much left to destroy
I know I am better alone
…except the isolation that birthed this record finds its emotional epicenter in the epic “Quand Les Larmes D’un Ange Font Danser La Neige.” Ironically it’s among the more conventional and readily accessible tracks on the album, even at seven minutes. Imagine the Bee Gees not taking that disco detour…
[spoken word] …it comes through the window like a whistle or a whisper under the bed and little children think that the monster —
Ain’t no karma, only love
To punish those with rotten heart
Good to have Melody’s Echo Chamber back — and this creature on the loose.
From its formation in the heady days of the 1960s to its final dissolution about 15 years later, Soft Machine rarely stayed in one place for long. The British band’s journey through technicolor psychedelia, meaty jazz-rock and idiosyncratic jazz fusion (equal parts Mahavishnu Orchestra, Terry Riley and Jimmy Webb) took shape on the fly, in a blur of live gigs and album sessions — along with multiple personnel changes following founding drummer Robert Wyatt’s departure. At the end, changes came so fast that the final album of the original discography, 1981’s Land of Cockayne, was Soft Machine in name only — effectively the first solo effort by composer/keyboardist Karl Jenkins, foreshadowing his eventual emergence as a classical crossover star (and a knight of the British Empire).
But starting in 2002, the persistence, dedication and improvisational spirit of MoonJune Records impresario Leonardo Pavkovic accomplished the extraordinary — bringing together Soft Machine alumni from across multiple incarnations, first as Soft Works, then in a long-running series of tours and albums as Soft Machine Legacy. 2015 brought about the resumption of the original band name, with the group consisting of 1970s Softs John Etheridge (guitar), Roy Babbington (bass) and John Marshall (drums), joined since 2006 by prolific saxist/flutist/keyboardist Theo Travis. Hidden Details is their sterling new album, released to coincide with a worldwide 50th anniversary tour. It’s an impressive addition to the Soft Machine canon; there’s fresh, exploratory depth throughout, coupled with the immediate appeal of fine players enjoying both each other’s company and the exquisite music they’re making.
The tracks on Hidden Details span a broad range of genre and style: there’s driving slowburn riff rock (Travis’ title track), thick chunky funk (Etheridge’s “One Glove”), even a sprightly pop groove with a psychedelic lilt (Travis’ “Fourteen Hour Dream,” complete with 1968 title reference). True to previous Legacy efforts, the band revisits vintage Softs classics, too; Mike Ratledge’s “Out-Bloody-Rageous” from Third features exuberant soloing by Travis, one-man horn section licks from Etheridge and plenty of steam in the engine room courtesy of Babbington and Marshall. Also present and correct: Ratledge’s “The Man Who Waved at Trains” from Bundles, updating original elements like Babbington’s hypnotic, cyclical bass and Travis’ reimagined take on Ratledge’s electric piano ‘cosmic tinkles’.
Even more exciting than the great tunes is the way the band works together throughout this album; tight but loose, the Softs listen to and play off each other in unexpected, delightful ways. Travis is equally at ease trading thick piano stabs with snarling Etheridge guitar on “Broken Hill,” saxing it up over a stutterstep Babbington riff during “Ground Lift,” and weaving flute-based loops punctuated by Marshall for the closing duet “Breathe.” Etheridge runs a gamut of sounds and styles as well, from the lyrical semi-acoustic arpeggios on “Heart Off Guard” and “Drifting White” to the full-on electrified power of “Flight of the Jett” and “Hidden Details” (complemented by Babbington’s nods to Hugh Hopper’s ground-shaking fuzz bass). And when the quartet builds music from silence — joining in one at a time on “Ground Lift” or engaging each other simultaneously on the epic free blow “Life on Bridges” — the results are extraordinary.
So the 2018 incarnation of Soft Machine has nothing to prove; for all with ears to hear, they bring their experience, confidence and musicality to bear on Hidden Details, and the results really are superb. It’s a winning album, great material for these Softs to bring to North American and British audiences this fall — in the US, for the first time in more than forty years! Check out the new album on Bandcamp for yourself, and don’t hesitate to catch them live.
— Rick Krueger
Continuing the saga of Soft Machine, who’ve already kicked off a 50th anniversary world tour (coming to North America this fall), and whose new album Hidden Details can be ordered at Bandcamp. Click here for Part One of this series, covering the band’s psychedelic years of 1966-69.
When last we left our heroes, quoting their website,
The base trio [of Mike Ratledge on organ, Hugh Hopper on bass and Robert Wyatt on drums and vocals] was, later in 1969, expanded to a septet with the addition of four horn players, though only saxophonist Elton Dean remained beyond a few months …
Cuneiform’s archive release Noisette reveals Soft Machine shaping a new sound onstage. Recorded live at Croydon in January 1970, this quintet set is dominated by Dean’s and saxophonist/flutist Lyn Dobson’s uninhibited blowing. The psychedelic song suites have nearly vanished; Wyatt only sings on “Hibou, Anemone and Bear,” where he’s given a completely solo moment, and material from the first two albums is exiled to the end of the show.
With Dobson out, the remaining quartet pulled together live recordings, studio inserts and tape experimentation to produce the four suites (one per side) on 1970’s double album Third — their first for Columbia Records. Hopper’s “Facelift” and Ratledge’s “Out-Bloody-Rageous” sandwich upbeat jazz workouts (asymmetric rhythms, harmonized sax sections, fired-up, skittery solos from Ratledge, Dean and guests) between Wyatt-less intros and codas — avant-garde improvs, classical fanfares, minimalist cycling keyboard riffs. Wyatt’s vulnerable, stream of consciousness epic “Moon in June” was the only vocal piece — and he played most of it (drums and keys) himself, with Ratledge and Hopper tacked on for the playout. Ratledge’s “Slightly All the Time” is the most integrated piece here, with the core group and guests swinging over appealing grooves and ratcheting up the excitement via Ratledge and Dean’s solo work.
Rough-edged it may have been, but Third was perfectly timed; with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew pulling jazz toward rock, Soft Machine was heading for the same destination from the opposite direction. The album gained attention, kudos and sales across Europe and the US, and the Softs became the first band to play at the Royal Albert Hall’s classical Promenade Concerts.