Soft Machine are a band with a complex fifty year history which I will make no attempt to précis here, but the current incarnation has just released a new live album recorded during their 50th anniversary tour last year, and which makes an excellent snapshot of what the band are about right now. Veteran rhythm section John Marshall (drums) and Roy Babbington (bass) and long-standing guitarist John Etheridge are these days joined by the relative youngster Theo Travis (sax, flute, Fender Rhodes). I don’t know if the band would agree, but it seems to me that Theo has given them something of a shot in the arm, and they appear to have been stirred into a new bout of creativity. Two years ago they released their first studio album since 1981 (Hidden Details), much of which is performed in this set, together with some real gems from deep in the catalogue, and on the strength of this recording, they sound more vital and enthused than we really have any right to expect.
This revitalisation is evident throughout, but particularly during the improvised sections where Travis and Etheridge spur each other on to new heights of sonic exploration. Their particular style of progressive rock with heavy jazz leanings is constantly evolving and mutating, often within a single song. The opening improv stirrings gradually morph into a Mike Ratledge piece from Third, Out-Bloody-Rageous, and it is clear immediately how the players empathise with each other, playing starring and supporting roles instinctively in turn as the piece evolves. On Sideburn, John Marshall demonstrates how a drum solo can be succinct and dexterously entertaining without resorting to cliche. There is an elasticity to his playing which is sinuous and musical, something many modern drummers fail to grasp.
Particularly pleasing to see in the set is the next piece, part 1 of Hazard Profile. Originally on 1975’s Bundles album, (which was a departure for the band at the time in that it featured guitar, largely absent previously), John Etheridge shines brightly on this marvellous version. He is similarly on fire during the improv mid-section of Tale of Taliesin, with Travis providing underpinning Fender Rhodes to great effect. More recent compositions from Hidden Details fit alongside the classics easily and inconspicuously, and prove that creatively they are still a force to be reckoned with. Etheridge songs like Heart Off Guard and Broken Hill are both jazzy and beautifully melodic, the latter a wonderfully melancholy piece. Travis also provides interesting compositions such as the ethereal Fourteen Hour Dream featuring floating flute flourishes, and Life on Bridges which is dazzling. The ensemble playing on this track is especially good. It begins with harmony playing of the complicated theme in unison by Etheridge and Travis, soon joined by the grumbling bass of Babbington, then the fluid percussive colouring of Marshall’s drums. It mutates into an improvised section before coming together again seamlessly. It’s a joy to hear the band so together, playing as a single entity, a living breathing Machine.
The recording is top notch as you’d expect, as the Baked Potato has produced some classic live albums in the past from the likes of Mike Keneally and Bryan Beller, and the production by Travis is spot on. I’ve seen Soft Machine several times in recent years, and this is as good a set as I’ve heard them perform. It’s hard to believe that they can still produce music with this level of invention and verve after more than fifty years, and there are no signs here of that stopping anytime soon I’m very pleased to say.
01. Out-Bloody-Intro (2:30)
02. Out-Bloody-Rageous, Part 1 (5:28)
03. Sideburn (2:18)
04. Hazard Profile, Part 1 (6:29)
05. Kings And Queens (4:36)
06. The Tale Of Taliesin (6:19)
07. Heart Off Guard (2:16)
08. Broken Hill (3:44)
09. Fourteen Hour Dream (6:26)
10. The Man Who Waved At Trains (5:12)
11. Life On Bridges (7:00)
12. Hidden Details (7:03)
Total Time – 59:13
John Etheridge – Guitar
Theo Travis – Saxophone, Flute, Fender Rhodes Piano
Roy Babbington – Bass Guitar
John Marshall – Drums
Record Label: MoonJune Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Dates of Release: Vinyl (20th March 2020 | CD/Digital (10th June 2020)