Monday, April 23, 2007

Soft Machine

@ George Starostin's Review
Ooh Lord, what a band. Actually, the Soft Machine weren't always as unknown as they are now - at one point (the earliest point in their career), they seriously rivalled Pink Floyd as Britain's most bizarre underground outfit. They are also known as the most important band on the so-called "Canterbury progressive scene", together with lesser acts like Gong, Matching Mole, and others; although, to my mind, dubbing the Machine as "progressive rock" is a major mistake - they have absolutely nothing in common with bands like Yes, ELP, or Genesis.
The main, and crucial, difference between the Softs and Pink Floyd in their early days was that the Soft Machine never even smelled a whiff of 'commerciality' in their recordings, and compared to the band's first two albums, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn looks a wee bit like whatever Britney Spears has to offer us nowadays. Always atonal and dissonant, experimental, innovative and blaringly schizophrenic, yet always super-professional and far from amateurish, these early albums are indeed a tough nut to crack - but, as with every tough nut, once they're cracked, heaven waits inside...

Relative heaven, of course: at times I'm tempted to dismiss the band entirely as just a bunch of esoteric gag-producing showmen with no real substance to their music. Like with the contemporary Krautrock scene, the Machine's primary concern was with "sound", not "music", or, if you wish, with "soundifying" the actual music. Unlike such Krautrock geniuses as Can, however, the Machine's "sounds" were mostly based on random improvisations, not the kind of cold mathematical precision that characterized their German colleagues. Which, in the end, makes the Machine's albums even less accessible for the general public than Can or Kraftwerk or Faust or any other German Krautrock band.

The Machine win over the Krautrock scene in certain other respects, though. The "improvisatory" elements serve to make the music more humane and enjoyable for the kind of public that gets all nervous and fidgets its feet at the robotic German music. And these guys also had a sense of humour and a specific British inventiveness which the Germans always lacked; I mean, even if the particular melodies (or the particular lack of melodies) on the band's first two albums don't seem welcome to you, there's at least so many of them, and the band goes off in so many directions and tackles so many styles that it's at the least entertaining. In all, the "classic" Soft Machine albums haven't dated a wee bit - they still remain as one of the pinnacles of modern avantgarde, and should be heavily recommended for just about anybody interested in that kind of music.

Unfortunately, this exciting period didn't last for far too long - it lasted for no more than two, maybe three albums. The band spent its youthful period (1967) playing all kinds of poppy stuff with a psychedelic flavour, broke all kinds of new grounds with their debut album (1968), displayed all kinds of paranoid weirdness on their second album (1969), and predicted all kinds of New Age and ambient music with their third album (1970). This is usually considered the "classic" period - the era which saw Soft Machine's main and most important contributions to rock music. However, by 1971 the band suddenly broke up with its revolutionary past and preferred to retread into a safe, cozy niche playing quiet, unobtrusive jazz-rock - or, what the hell, at times it was just modern jazz. Actually, the band had always been somewhat "jazzy" (they almost never even had a guitar player, except for a couple albums), but since their fourth album, the music lost any possible connections with "rock" - for better or for worse (for me - certainly for worse, as I'm not a great fan of modern jazz). Perversely enough, the band's "jazz" catalog has by far overshadowed their initial three albums: with endlessly changing lineups they continued pumping out new and new records, some of them slightly more interesting, some less, some completely dull and some containing certain delicious slices of music that can easily be overlooked through all the mediocrity (be sure to scoop up 1975's Bundles as the pinnacle of this period), but none of them ever broke the charts, and most are extremely hard to find nowadays. Their last studio album came out as late as 1981, when not a single original member was already left, and as far as I know, the band continued as a touring act until the 1990s, but this hardly had anything to do with the Soft Machine as much.

Somehow I have managed to acquire pretty much every studio effort the Soft Machine have originally put out, and, though I definitely wasn't charmed at first, some of these records actually grow on you to a certain extent. I still can't give them more than a D rating, though - if I tried to do otherwise, I'd have to condemn myself as a hopeless snob, or at least raise Frank Zappa's rating to an A+ which I won't do anyway. Frankly speaking, there's just way too much dreck in the band's catalog - even in the prime 1968-70 days, the guys never knew exactly when to stop, and far too often, they cross that dangerous line which separates brilliant avantgarde from avantgarde for avantgarde's sake. And I warn everybody: stay away from the Softs if you weren't too wild about Zappa or Captain Beefheart in the first place, because this takes just a little bit more tolerance than listening to those two monsters of weirdness. Of course, the post-1970 albums are far more accessible - there ain't too much weirdness about your average avantgarde jazz-fusion - but they are also far less innovative and far less memorable, in the long run.

I won't bring up the entire lineup here - if you don't have any idea about what a "revolving door principle" is, just look up "Soft Machine" in any rock encyclopaedia. Pretty much every following album had some lineup change or other, until, like I've already said, there wasn't a single original member left. Principal figures in the cult, however, seem to be: Robert Wyatt - the great weird drummer who's also well-known for certain collaborations with the Roxy crowd like Brian Eno or Phil Manzanera, and, of course, for his own prolific solo career; Mike Ratledge - the organ player, the Softs' backbone through most of their truly creative period; Hugh Hopper - the Softs' principal bass player. The latter-day Soft Machine period was characterized by active contributions from Karl Jenkins - a terrific brass player who was often (but not always) able to pull the band out of their misery, but not enough to make them dent the charts or anything. As for the exact lineups, I'll probably just mention them for every subsequent record, instead of baffling the reader in the introduction paragraph which, in that case, would probably take up thrice as much space as it does now.

General Evaluation:
Listenability: 0/5. It's with great big pride that I award these guys this rating, actually.
Resonance: 0/5. See above.
Originality: 4/5. The first albums sprung out of near-nowhere.
Adequacy: 3/5. Points are taken seriously off due to all the pompous fusion stuff.
Diversity: 3/5. Most of their diversity was demonstrated during the first three years of their existence, but even that is enough.
Overall: 2.0 = D on the rating scale....... =>>>>>>>>>>>

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Richie Unterberger @ All Music
Soft Machine were never a commercial enterprise and indeed still remain unknown even to many listeners who came of age during the late '60s, when the group was at its peak. In their own way, however, they were one of the more influential bands of their era, and certainly one of the most influential underground ones. One of the original British psychedelic groups, they were also instrumental in the birth of both progressive rock and jazz-rock. They were also the central foundation of the family tree of the "Canterbury Scene" of British progressive rock acts, a movement that also included Caravan, Gong, Matching Mole, and National Health, not to mention the distinguished solo careers of founding members Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers.

Considering their well-known experimental and avant-garde leanings, the roots of Soft Machine were in some respects surprisingly conventional. In the mid-'60s, Wyatt sang and drummed with the Wilde Flowers, a Canterbury group that played more or less conventional pop and soul covers of the day. Future Soft Machine members Ayers and Hugh Hopper would also pass through the Wilde Flowers, whose original material began to reflect an odd sensibility, cultivated by their highly educated backgrounds and a passion for improvised jazz. In 1966, Wyatt teamed up with bassist/singer Ayers, keyboardist Mike Ratledge, and Australian guitarist Daevid Allen to form the first lineup of Soft Machine.

This incarnation of the group, along with Pink Floyd and Tomorrow, were the very first underground psychedelic bands in Britain, and quickly became well loved in the burgeoning London psychedelic underground. Their first recordings (many of which only surfaced years later on compilations of 1967 demos) were by far their most pop-oriented, which doesn't mean they weren't exciting or devoid of experimental elements. Surreal wordplay and unusually (for rock) complex instrumental interplay gave an innovative edge to their ebullient early psychedelic outings. They only managed to cut one (very good) single, though, which flopped. Allen, the weirdest of a colorful group of characters, had to leave the band when he was refused reentry into the U.K. after a stint in France, due to the expiration of his visa.

The remaining trio recorded its first proper album in 1968. The considerable melodic elements and vocal harmonies of their 1967 recordings were now giving way to more challenging, artier postures that sought -- sometimes successfully, sometimes not -- to meld the energy of psychedelic rock with the improvisational pulse of jazz. The Softs were taken on by Jimi Hendrix's management, leading to grueling stints supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience on their 1968 American tours. Because of this, the group at this point was probably more well-known in the U.S. than their homeland. In fact, their debut LP was only issued, oddly, in the States. For a couple of months in 1968, strangely enough, Soft Machine became a quartet again with the addition of future Police guitarist Andy Summers, although that didn't work out, and they soon reverted to a trio. The punishing tours took their toll on the group, and Ayers had left by the end of 1968, to be replaced by Wyatt's old chum Hugh Hopper.

Their second album, Volume Two (1969), further submerged the band's pop elements in favor of extended jazzy compositions, with an increasingly lesser reliance on lyrics and vocals. Ratledge's fuzzy, buzzy organ and Wyatt's pummeling, imaginative drumming and scat vocals paced the band on material that became increasingly whimsical and surrealistic, if increasingly inaccessible to the pop/rock audience. For their third album, they went even further in these directions, expanding to a seven-piece by adding a horn section. This record virtually dispensed with vocals and conventional rock songs entirely, and is considered a landmark by both progressive rock and jazz-rock aficionados, though it was too oblique for many rock listeners.

Soft Machine couldn't afford to continue to support a seven-member lineup, and scaled back to a quartet for their fourth album, retaining Elton Dean on sax. Wyatt had left by the end of 1971, briefly leading the similar Matching Mole, and then establishing a long-running solo career. In doing so he was following the path of Kevin Ayers, who already had several solo albums to his credit by the early '70s; Daevid Allen, for his part, had become a principal of Gong, one of the most prominent and enigmatic '70s progressive rock bands.

For most intents and purposes, Wyatt's departure spelled the end of Soft Machine's reign as an important band. Although Soft Machine was always a collaborative effort, Wyatt's humor, humanism, and soulful raspy vocals could not be replaced. Ratledge and Hopper kept the group going with other musicians, though by now they were an instrumental fusion group with little vestiges of their former playfulness. Hopper left in 1973, and Ratledge, the last original member, was gone by 1976. Other lineups continued to play under the Soft Machine name, amazingly, until the 1990s, but these were Soft Machine in name only. =>>>>>>>>>>>

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