I always found Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge somewhat musically abrasive at times, although undoubtedly brilliant. I know, it’s probably some sort of sacrilege saying that and I can expect hanging at dawn from the rabid Softs fraternity no doubt. It’s only a subjective opinion… calm down, calm down! The Soft Machine eras raise almost as much late middle-aged hot wind as the same pointless debate among Genesis fans, and among the Softs clans there are probably even some fools who think (The) Soft Machine ended when Daevid Allen was refused re-entry into the U.K. 51 years ago! Damn fools all of them!
We are now in a new Soft Machine era and this current line-up have probably been playing together longer than any previous incarnation, so another debate, “are Etheridge/Marshall/Travis/Babbington entitled to have dropped the ‘Legacy’ from their name?” is equally daft, and frankly, a non-starter. Fans really are a pain in the ‘arris, are they not?
Back to the matter in hand, and Hidden Details, the first album to bear the Soft Machine name in 37 years, will be released a few weeks short of the 50th anniversary of the release of the band’s 1968 self-titled debut. Opening with the title track, the album gets off to a scintillating start. Hidden Details, whose main melody craftily references an earlier Softs excursion (or may not… my addled memory synapses are not always reliable!), is probably the heaviest thing on this record, heck, it may even be the heaviest thing this incarnation of the band have written. After the opening riff, which is reprised towards the end, Theo Travis lets rip with some fine and fearsome blowing on the trusty tenor sax. This serves as a substantial taster, for following that is a mesmerising jazz fusion rollercoaster excursion from John Etheridge that will have you pinned to your seat in appreciation. This track neatly captures the stark colour clash of the album’s cover, and like that garish blue/orange face off is two distinct halves colliding as one blindingly good whole.
The intuitively funky rhythm section of John Marshall and Roy Babbington is a monster on the title track, and is an essential ingredient throughout, with not a beat missed or misused. The band is touring soon and it will be a joy to behold these two in action again at The Borderline in November, anchoring the dextrous front line with a Zen-like calm authority.
Theo Travis adds a fair amount of atmospheric electric piano on Hidden Details, evoking earlier eras, and there are two interpretations of older Softs tunes on the album, which is fitting given the anniversarial nature of this release. The first of those reimaginings, both Mike Ratledge tunes and as different as can be, is The Man Who Waved At Trains, from 1975’s superb Bundles album, that starred John’s predecessor in the band, the enigmatic and brilliant Allan Holdsworth. Bundles also happens to be my favourite Softs album, another sacrilegious comment, I’ve no doubt. This version is dominated by Theo’s flute, using looping techniques to create a full soundscape, and fits with the rest of the album seamlessly.
John Etheridge is a highly expressive guitarist, in whatever style in his huge range he happens to be playing. While probably most at home in this particular setting flying off on exploratory flights of fusion fancy as on One Glove, on Broken Hill a decidedly Floydian air descends, and John takes on the Gilmour Solo, reimagined as if Dave had been steeped in a history of jazz rather than the blues. Elsewhere we witness John’s accomplished classically inclined playing on the sublime Heart Off Guard, performing a lovely duet with Theo’s reeds.
One of the shorter linking pieces, entitled Out Bloody Intro, sees Theo’s beguiling electric piano create an almost subliminal entry into Out Bloody Rageous, Part 1, a far gentler trip into the wilder recesses of the Ratledge original from 1970’s Third than might have been anticipated, by yours truly at least. For all that, it still works a treat, the ensemble playing showing all the class the many decades of experience this wily old troupe (and that includes Theo too, relative youngster that he is!) have between them. This version multi-tracks Theo on clarinet and sax, and entwined within the shifting coils of the snake-charmer rhythm, it makes for a gorgeous feast of music.
The last track Breathe is a lovely way to end the album, an extended ambient piece sailing along on a becalmed sea with Theo evoking swooping seabirds riding warm air currents in the wake of a fishing boat slowly returning to port in the sunset of a long day. That’s my take on it anyway! Thankfully, the bonus track extends that atmosphere, but then… why call it a bonus track at all? A very minor gripe, admittedly.
I would guess all those who run for their Genesis albums at the very mention of “Soft Machine” or the dreaded “jazz” word haven’t read this far, but if you have, try Hidden Details on Bandcamp streaming when it emerges blinking into the harsh light of this mad world on September 8th, it really is very good and highlights four seasoned professional musicians at the height of their powers, and it won’t scare you… much. The rest of you already have it on your “to buy” list, right?
1. Hidden Details (Travis) (7:36)
2. The Man Who Waved At Trains (Ratledge) (5:00)
3. Ground Lift (Travis/Babbington) (5:21)
4. Heart Off Guard (Etheridge) (2:29)
5. Broken Hill (Etheridge) (3:49)
6. Flight Of The Jet (Etheridge/Travis/Babbington/Marshall) (2:12)
7. One Glove (Etheridge) (4:30)
8. Out Bloody Intro (Ratledge/Travis) (2:41)
9. Out Bloody Rageous, Part 1 (Ratledge) (4:56)
10. Drifting White (Etheridge) (1:47)
11. Life On Bridges (Travis) (8:05)
12. Fourteen Hour Dream (Travis) (6:24)
13. Breathe (Travis/Marshall) (5:31)
14. Night Sky (Bonus Track) (Travis/Etheridge) (3:19)
Total Time – 56:54
John Etheridge – Electric & Acoustic guitar
Theo Travis – Sax, Flute, Fender Rhodes Piano
Roy Babbington – Bass Guitar
John Marshall – Drums
~ Special Guest:
Nick Utteridge – Wind Chimes (track 13)
Record Label: MoonJune Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 8th September 2018