Soft Machine: Hidden Details

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.

soft machine band shot

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

 

 

Soft Machine: The Jazz-Rock Years

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.

Continue reading “Soft Machine: The Jazz-Rock Years”

Minus

Black Sabbath meets Pink Floyd, in other words it’s heavy metal, but quite psychedelic, atmospheric and drawn-out. Kraków’s Minus exhibits significant post metal and stoner hues too. The album actually progresses from stoner straight into post rock territory. From a three minute album opener to nine minute compositions essentially reflects that trend. From fractious Soundgarden like textures to introspective drone riffs – the journey couldn’t be more seamless.

Soft Machine Returns!

News from Theo Travis, sax-man to prog giants like Steven Wilson, Robert Fripp and David Gilmour:

In September 2018, Soft Machine release their new studio album ‘Hidden Details’. This is the first Soft Machine album (as opposed to Soft Machine Legacy album) in 37 years – since ‘In the Land of Cockayne’. It features John Etheridge (guitar) Roy Babbington (bass) and John Marshall (drums) alongside Theo on Tenor and Soprano saxes, flute and alto flute and Fender Rhodes electric piano.

Theo has written four tunes for the album and there are arrangements of two classic Soft Machine tracks – Out Bloody Rageous (from Third) and The Man who Waved at Trains (from Bundles) . There are also various group improvisations. The music is broad ranging from psychedelia to jazz rock to free form improv’ to simple pop-ish tunes to hypnotic mood pieces …

With the release of the album the band featuring John Etheridge, Theo Travis, Roy Babbington and John Marshall will go on a Soft Machine 50 Years World Tour celebrating 50 years since the first Soft Machine album.

The various vinyl & CD editions of ‘Hidden Details’ are spelled out in Theo’s post; Sid Smith (author of the definitive King Crimson biography) has mentioned that he’s written the liner notes on his Facebook page.   Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if a download version of the album will show up at Soft Machine’s Bandcamp site.

North American tour dates (the band’s first since 1974, when founding organist Mike Ratledge, guitarist Allan Holdsworth and Adiemus guru Karl Jenkins were in the group) will include:

  • Saturday 06 October: Orion Studios, Baltimore MD
  • Sunday 07 October: Theater of the Living Arts, Philadelphia, PA
  • Tuesday 09 October: Roxy & Duke’s Rockabilly Roadhouse, Dunellen, NJ
  • Wednesday 10 October: Daryl’s House, Pawling, NY
  • Friday-Sunday 12-14 October: Iridium, New York, NY (3 shows)
  • Tuesday 16 October: Mod Club Theatre, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • Wednesday 17 October: The Tralf, Buffalo, NY
  • Thursday 18 October: Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, Cleveland, OH
  • Sunday 21 October: Progtoberfest, Reggie’s Rock Club, Chicago, IL
  • Monday 22 October: Shank Hall, Milwaukee, WI
  • Tuesday 23 October: The Turf, St. Paul, MN

Since I’m hoping to see the band at Progtoberfest, I’ve been listening to the Softs’ original recordings recently, and am primed to dive into the Soft Machine Legacy albums of the 21st century.  Watch this space for some serious Retroarchy coming soon …

— Rick Krueger

 

Progtoberfest IV Is Coming!

Reggie’s Rock Club and Music Joint has officially announced the line-up for Progtoberfest IV.  Sponsored by InsideOut Music, the festival will be held on the south side of Chicago Friday through Sunday, October 19-21.  Tickets go on sale Friday, June 1 Tuesday, June 5 at 12 noon CST at Ticketfly.  Here’s the line-up, with event and band links included wherever possible:

Friday, October 19 – Reggie’s Rock Club:

 

Friday, October 19 — Reggie’s Music Joint:

  • The Nick D’Virgilio Project (Fort Wayne, IN — jazz-rock fusion with colleagues from Sweetwater Studios)
  • Tempano (Venezuela)
  • Inner Ear Brigade (San Francisco, CA)
  • No More Pain (Old Bridge, NJ)

 

Saturday, October 20 — Reggie’s Rock Club:

 

Saturday. October 20 — Reggie’s Music Joint:

 

Sunday, October 21 — Reggie’s Rock Club:

 

Sunday, October 21 — Reggie’s Music Joint:

 

Ticket prices are as follows:

  • Single day general admission (standing room in Rock Club):$75
  • Single day general admission VIP (including poster, BBQ buffet and meet & greets): $100
  • Three day general admission: $175
  • Three day general admission VIP: $240
  • Three day Above Stage VIP: $275 (general admission seating in Rock Club balcony; my choice for Progtoberfest III)
  • Three day Seated VIP: $325 (reserved seats up front on Rock Club main floor)
  • Three day Red Chair VIP: $400 (reserved seats up front in Rock Club balcony)
  • There are additional Ticketfly service fees, but they’re reasonable.

I had a great time at Progtoberfest III last year, and I hope to make it to at least one day of this year’s festival.  This time around, I’m especially impressed by the variety of genres represented (including a generous amount of jazz-rock fusion) and the healthy mix of national/international big names (getting Soft Machine is a genuine coup), local favorites and hungry young artists.  See you there?

 

soundstreamsunday #108: “Many Mansions” by Sonny Sharrock

sharrock1Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages (1991), with its depth-defying groove and meet-up of ambition and gravitas, is the portrait of a maturing artist hitting his stride.  Sharrock was 51 and riding a creative wave — one foot in the free jazz he brought his guitar to in the 1960s, one in the “collision music” envisioned by musical partner and producer Bill Laswell — when he made this record with a sympathetic band of jazz leaders:  drummer Elvin Jones, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and bassist Charnett Moffett.  A pleasurably melodic challenge, Sharrock’s last record before his passing in 1994 manages to be both a ripping rock guitar album and an American jazz classic, steeped in themes of race, religion, and identity.

The participation of Jones and Sanders is key to creating this mood, their link to John Coltrane making for that ghost’s heavy presence, but Sharrock’s post-Hendrix tone and attack works a territory not dissimilar to Pete Cosey’s and Reggie Lucas’s contributions to Miles Davis’s live records in the 1970s, or Eddie Hazel’s Funkadelicisms.  There is a lot of satisfying growl here.

The penultimate tune in the set, “Many Mansions” takes John 14:2 across a droning chord sequence, a woozy blues backgrounding Sanders’ shrieking solos and Sharrock’s responses.  The deft touch of Jones and Moffett keeps us wading in the water, moving towards an undertow of deep meditation.  Original album version here as well as an incendiary performance from Frankfurt in 1992.

Powerful, spirited, spiritual.

Note: the image of Pharoah Sanders and Sonny Sharrock is in all likelihood from a Sanders-led tour in the late 1960s, when the two initially collaborated.  It’s just too good an image not to use in description of the music.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.