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