Frequent prog scribbler Sid Smith claims, in the liner notes for this newly released reissue of Bundles, that “it’s been fashionable … to heap praise upon the first four or possibly five Soft Machine albums and pour scorn on [the rest].” If that’s the case, it’s news to me. I thought it was more of a battle between Robert Wyatt-era psychedelic purists and Karl Jenkins-era jazz-rock fans. At any rate, I happen to enjoy both eras, though I’m more firmly in the Wyatt camp as the first four albums in Soft Machine’s canon are essential in my opinion. However, there could hardly be a more convincing argument for the band’s mid-’70s era than Bundles.
For the first time, after 1973’s Six and Seven, the band went a whole calendar year without releasing any new music. Like a caterpillar transforming into a beautiful butterfly, the band emerged with a completely new sound when they hit the scene in 1975; so different in fact, that certain audiences were disappointed with what they heard. Still retaining a penchant for noodly solos over complicated yet catchy rhythms, this new Soft Machine was far more rock-oriented than previous outings, and had a distinctively harder edge. Even the name, Bundles, a diversion from their previous numerical titles, showed that this was a different sort of Soft Machine.
The ace up the band’s sleeve was, of course, Allan Holdsworth. The band had never featured a guitarist before, but who would they have been to turn down an opportunity to play with one of the greatest jazz fusion guitarists to have ever lived? As transient here as he was with U.K. and Bruford, he only stuck around for this one album; you can’t tie a musician like that down, and his presence on Bundles is what makes it such a special album indeed.
Holdsworth’s solos dominate on the first part of the epic opening track Hazard Profile, an incredible reworking of Jenkins’s Song for the Bearded Lady from his Nucleus days. Even in a nine-minute song, one never gets tired of hearing his blistering fingerwork, transcendental as it is. The band take a breather with the quiet Toccatina before returning in full force for Parts Three through Five, delivering a lengthy jam in ⅞ before finishing with four repetitions of the kind of obnoxiously complicated phrase that prog fans seem to love. While Hazard Profile isn’t the most cohesive of suites, it still makes for an utterly exhilarating nineteen minutes that always seems to fly by.
Over on Side Two, we get another suite of continuous music, though this time the names are kept separate. The title track is another time signature work out, segueing into Land of the Bag Snake, heavily punctuated by John Marshall’s china cymbal. Next are two compositions by the only remaining founding member Mike Ratledge, the serene The Man Who Waved at Trains and the more pyrotechnic Peff. Four Gongs Two Drums might be the low point of the album, a mercifully brief assortment of randomly banged percussion. The proceedings are topped off with an oddity; The Floating World is a soothing, minimalistic track that suggests The Soft Weed Factor from Six. While pleasant, it feels more like a relic from the past that has mistakenly found its way onto a jazz-rock album.
Esoteric’s reissue includes an unearthed recording from the band’s subsequent tour that was made for broadcast. Curiously enough, the recording was made at Nottingham University, where Renaissance also did a set a few months later, included on Esoteric’s expanded edition of Scheherazade and Other Stories; was Nottingham University the place to go to make these sorts of recordings, or is this just a pure coincidence? At 79-minutes, the length of this recording is about as much as you can fit on a single CD, and features a brilliant set that includes all the highlights from Bundles as well as a couple of numbers from the band’s subsequent album, Softs. This recording features John Etheridge on guitar as Holdsworth had already left the group by that time, breaking the commitment he had made to join them for one tour. His style is certainly nowhere near as distinct and Hazard Profile in particular suffers for this, but the band still give a rousing performance, nonetheless. For my money, they do seem to rush through Hazard Profile a bit quickly though, managing it a full four minutes faster than on the album. These live documents are a fascinating insight into the band’s onstage energy back in the day, and the audio quality is extremely good considering its age.
Bundles was originally released in a single sleeve with a plain grey cover featuring the front cover artwork and five small band member photos on the reverse side. Without complicated gatefolds to reproduce, Esoteric has an easier job getting this package design right, featuring the original photos in the ‘gatefold’ of the 2CD digipak. Sid Smith’s liner notes are informative as always, featuring excerpts from interviews with Soft Machine members. The essay is decorated with photos of what looks like screen grabs from a video of the band at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974, as well as some other materials.
Bundles has just about everything you could want from a jazz-prog recording: complicated riffs, tasty solos and incendiary musicianship. Even better, the whole thing flows beautifully by having all the tracks link together; none of the tracks feel skippable, and each contributes to the wonderfully-constructed whole. Moreover, the harder rock sound achieved on Bundles suits the band down to the ground, and they prove themselves as a band to be reckoned with on this unique album. Esoteric’s reissue does the album justice by adding a second disc, allowing the listener to evaluate the album’s best tracks in a different setting, and with Etheridge replacing Holdsworth on guitar.
CD 1 – Bundles (1975)
01. Hazard Profile, Part One (9:17)
02. Hazard Profile, Part Two (Toccatina) (2:15)
03. Hazard Profile, Part Three (0:33)
04. Hazard Profile, Part Four (1:25)
05. Hazard Profile, Part Five (5:23)
06. Gone Sailing (0:59)
07. Bundles (3:14)
08. Land of the Bag Snake (3:35)
09. The Man Who Waved at Trains (1:51)
10. Peff (3:37)
11. Four Gongs Two Drums (2:31)
12. The Floating World (7:08)
Time – 41:47
CD 2 – Live at Nottingham University, 11th October 1975
01. Bundles (3:27)
02. Land of the Bag Snake (4:00)
03. Out of Season (6:14)
04. The Man Who Waved at Trains (6:02)
05. JVH (4:23)
06. The Floating World (1:17)
07. Ban-Ban Caliban (9:53)
08. Side Burn (10:21)
09. Hazard Profile, Part One (6:12)
10. Hazard Profile, Part Two (Toccatina) (1:41)
11. Hazard Profile, Part Three (0:24)
12. Hazard Profile, Part Four (1:39)
13. Hazard Profile, Part Five (4:51)
14. Song of Aeolus (3:57)
15. Sign of Five (14:46)
Time – 79:20
Total Time – 121:07
Roy Babbington – Bass Guitar
Allan Holdsworth – Electric, Acoustic & 12-string Guitars (CD 1)
Karl Jenkins – Oboe, Piano, Electric Piano, Soprano Saxophone
John Marshall – Drums & Percussion
Mike Ratledge – Organ, Electric Piano, Synthesiser
John Etheridge – Electric Guitar (CD 2)