CD reviews

CD REVIEW: Soft Machine – Hidden Details

Soft Machine – Hidden Details
(Dyad Records DY029. CD review by Brian Marley)

Hidden Details is being touted as the first official Soft Machine album since Softs (1976). In the interim, working under the name Soft Machine Legacy, the group released a slew of studio and live albums, and maintained the high level of creativity set by the first two incarnations of Soft Machine (sometimes known as the eras of Robert Wyatt and Elton Dean) in which guitar played no role.

That changed with Bundles (1975), in which fleet-fingered Alan Holdsworth was added to the personnel. But he stayed for only one album, passing the plectrum to John Etheridge for Softs. Etheridge, an earthier player, continued the good work that Holdsworth had begun, shifting the group away from the free jazz elements that were strongest on the album Fifth, in which Elton Dean’s freewheeling saxello played a major role, and the smooth fusion of the Karl Jenkins-led Seven, towards a more jazz-rock orientation, with the emphasis slightly more on rock than jazz.

Tricky time signatures still featured, of course, as did looped layers of sound anchored by ostinato bass patterns. Roy Babbington was in the bass chair for Softs, and here he is again on Hidden Details. Likewise drummer John Marshall. In fact, the only change to the Softs line-up is that Theo Travis (reeds, flute, Fender Rhodes piano) replaces Karl Jenkins, who went on to fame and fortune elsewhere.

During the period in which Jenkins led Soft Machine, he became the group’s principal composer, and composition became the group’s principal focus. Jenkins gradually reduced the amount of space afforded to improvisation, making the album Seven a slightly airless, somewhat lacklustre affair. The introduction to the group of Travis and Etheridge opened up the music so it could breathe again. They’ve been stalwarts of the group ever since.

Both are strong improvisers, and their compositions maintain the high standard set by Mike Ratledge, arguably Soft Machine’s leading composer from its naïve beginnings until 1976, when he left the group. Two Ratledge compositions are given an airing on Hidden Details, the cruise-controlled The Man Who Waved at Trains and Out Bloody Rageous (Part 1) (featuring an excellent soprano sax solo from Travis). They’ve never been out of the Soft Machine/Legacy songbook and have appeared on a number of live albums.

The title track offers an exciting tenor sax solo from Travis, and a frankly unhinged guitar workout from Etheridge that responds to Babbington’s fuzz-bass provocations as if receiving a series of jolts from a cattle prod. The gentler side of Soft Machine is provided by three Etheridge compositions, Heart Off Guard which feeds into Broken Hill and Drifting White. The freely improvised Flight of the Jett gives Marshall a chance to demonstrate what a subtle but powerful player he is. But it’s Travis’s compositions, Life on Bridges, Fourteen Hour Dream, and the title track that provide the strongest links to early Soft Machine and also some of the album’s highlights. Breathe, a flute-looped inhale/exhale drone that features only Travis’s flute and Marshall’s delicate cymbalwork, is a fittingly tranquil conclusion to a very fine album.

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