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Soft Machine: Hidden Details

John Kelman By

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Following a series of releases for Moonjune Records under the moniker Soft Machine Legacy, beginning with 2005's Live in Zaandam and concluding, most recently, with 2013's Burden of Proof, this quartet consisting largely of members from the classic Canterbury group Soft Machine has finally decided to drop the "Legacy" and go it with the original name alone.

And why not? For a group that began in the mid-'60s and, over the next 15 years or so, released eleven ever-evolving albums (ranging from post-Dadaist rock to free jazz and fusion) with equally shifting lineups that saw over twenty different players move through its revolving doors, the current incarnation not only features three players who played in Soft Machine back in the day; the Soft Machine of Hidden Details actually features three members who collaborated together on Softs (Harvest, 1976).

That, in itself, is reason enough to legitimately reassume the Soft Machine mantle, since early Soft Machine Legacy lineups may have featured all-SM alumni, but equally consisted of members who, in some cases, had never actually played together in the band.

Drummer John Marshall, who joined Soft Machine beginning with Fifth (Columbia, 1972), and guitarist John Etheridge, who replaced Allan Holdsworth for Softs and 1978's Alive & Well: Recorded in Paris (Harvest), were charter members of Soft Machine Legacy alongside bassist Hugh Hopper and saxophonist/pianist Elton Dean, two Soft Machine members who went even further back with the group. But with Dean's passing in '06, woodwind/reed multi- instrumentalist and keyboardist Theo Travis has become the only member of Soft Machine Legacy (and now, Soft Machine) who'd not played during the group's '60s/'70s heyday (a relative impossibility as he'd have been just turning twenty when the group broke up for good in 1984). And when Hopper died in 2009, the logical replacement was the same bassist who replaced him during Soft Machine's original run: bass guitarist Roy Babbington.

And so, with Etheridge, Babbington and Marshall not just band alum but actually players who worked together in Soft Machine for roughly sixteen months, from 1975 through '76, the current lineup not only features members from the original group's many incarnations, it also possesses an intrinsic chemistry that, beginning with Live Adventures (Moonjune, 2011), has been recaptured while, at the same time, continuing to evolve.

Travis may have been new to Soft Machine Legacy with 2007's Steam (Moonjune, 2007), but he was already an in-demand player who has, in addition to releasing a dozen albums under his own name including Earth to Ether (33 Records, 2004) and Open Air (Tonefloat, 2017), collaborated with, amongst many others, Gong, Steven Wilson, No-Man, The Tangent, David Sylvian, Robert Fripp and David Gilmour.

The result? A group which, in addition to extant chemistry, has experienced an infusion of fresh blood from a player/composer who can deliver, with absolute credibility, classic music from forty-plus years back while, at the same time, bringing it an alternate perspective. Whether it's Soft Machine Legacy or just Soft Machine, this is a band that has, by transcending any suggestions of nostalgia with an ever-growing repertoire of new material, become a throughly relevant group in the 21st century.

The group may include considerably more material from the '70s in performance, as demonstrated during its searing show at the 2018 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, but, as has been its habit across its Soft Machine Legacy discography, Soft Machine's Hidden Details focuses more extensively on new material and collective improvisation, with just three of its thirteen tracks culled from its back catalog—and all of them from the pen of original keyboardist Mike Ratledge, who remained in the group for nearly a decade, from near-inception in August 1966 through to March 1976.

Ratledge's ambling yet atmospheric modal workout, "The Man Who Waved at Trains," originally from Bundles (Harvest, 1975), assumes a lighter complexion with Travis' floating flute work and echo-laden Fender Rhodes, while Etheridge's chunky fourths- driven chords create as much of an harmonic anchor as Babbington's fluid bass riff secures the groove alongside Marshall's unfettered yet ever- grounded rhythms. "Out Bloody Intro," a minimalist-informed Rhodes piece co-credited to original composer Ratledge and Travis, who fashions a newly-improvised miniature from its initial premise, slowly winds its way into the first part of Ratledge's "Out Bloody Rageous," one of four side- long tracks that made up Soft Machine's early two-LP classic Third (Columbia, 1970) but, reduced here to just five minutes, captures both the vibe of the original while turning it into something even looser, with Travis' soaring soprano saxophone solo bolstered by Etheridge's empathic chordal support and a rhythm team that's both lighter and more fluid than the original section of Hopper and drummer Robert Wyatt.

If it seems, from these tracks culled from the band's '70s repertoire, that there's more airtime given to Travis, that's just an illusion. Hidden Details is, as Soft Machine largely was, a thoroughly egalitarian affair, though Travis and Etheridge are the group's primary composers. Etheridge's "Drifting White" may run less than two minutes in length, but its blend of single note melodies and supportive chord work demonstrate just how far the guitarist has come since the days of Softs, when it was more decidedly about light-speed chops.

This beautiful miniature joins almost seamlessly with Travis' "Life on Bridges," where Etheridge and the saxophonist (on tenor) open the eight-minute piece with a minute-long iteration of its serpentine theme. Marshall and Babbington (employing a heavy fuzz tone on his bass) join in, mirroring the same theme before opening up into a no-time/no-changes passage of reckless improvisational abandon, a demonstration that, while earlier Soft Machine incarnations tended to have their own individual stylistic markers, Soft Machine in the new millennium manages to capture the many different touchstones of the band's first decade or so.

With music ranging from complete freedom and interpretive openness to more defined structures, Hidden Details manages to evoke not just the spirit of any one Soft Machine lineup of the past, but of many, while collecting its multiple touchstones into something wholly itself, a description absolutely essential to any Soft Machine lineup. Following the collectively improvised, two-minute "Flight of the Jett," where Marshall's deft introductory free play is expounded upon by Travis' wah-driven Rhodes and some heavily effected guitar, Etheridge's more form/groove-driven "One Glove" is based upon a thematic passage that intersperses four bars of four beats with one bar of two, before opening up to a straight 4/4 vamp that, driven by Babbington and Marshall's loosely funky pulse, provides plenty of solo space for both Etheridge and Travis.

Etheridge combines the rapid-fire skill that made him such a powerful addition to Softs with an of attention to space and, in this case, visceral, whammy bar-driven lines that reflect years of maturity and experience gained, in addition to a series of solo albums including 2003's Chasing Shadows and '07's Alone! Live! (both, Dyad), collaborations with everyone from Stephane Grappelli and Vic Juris to Andy Summers, Chris Garrick and a brief trio with Arild Andersen and John Marshall on 2007's live In House (Dyad). Again on tenor, Travis' solo on "One Glove" combines deep, lower register growls with altissimo screeches. A completely different saxophonist to original horn man Elton Dean, Travis nevertheless clearly "gets" what makes Soft Machine Soft Machine while, at the same time, furthering the group's history of constant change with the injection of his own inimitable musical personality.

Travis' album-opening, metrically shifting title track combines Mahavishnu Orchestra-informed guitar arpeggios, fat, overdriven bass lines and thundering kit work as the foundation for potent, bar-setting solos from both the saxophonist and Etheridge, who comes charging out of the gate with a relentless flow of ideas that reaches for the stratosphere, thanks to some judiciously but effectively used harmonizing.

The album-closing "Breathe," on the other hand, is a freely improvised blend of Travis' multiple layers of Ambitronics-driven, looped and otherwise effected flute with some of Marshall's most delicate playing, augmented, on this track only, by Nick Utteridge's wind chimes. The more ambient conclusion of the North American and European CD is extended, on the digital download version and Japanese CD release, with "Night Sky," a gentle duo co-credited to Travis and Etheridge, whose flute and guitar are similarly looped and layered, in a very different fashion to the woodwind/reed multi-instrumentalist's duo work with Soundscapist Fripp, heard most recently on Between the Silence (Panegyric, 2018).

After years largely spent as a session musician, it's terrific to hear Babbington, now 78, let loose again with Soft Machine and taking more risks than he did back in the day, when the music was more decidedly and exclusively form-driven. Meanwhile, at 77, Marshall may move a little more slowly to the kit than he used to, but on the strength of his work both live and on Hidden Details, once he's behind that kit he's still clearly capable of the same power he's always possessed, but in a manner that's also evolved and relaxed significantly over the years through his work with Eberhard Weber, Arild Andersen and John Surman for ECM Records, alongside others including Michael Gibbs, Jack Bruce and Graham Collier.

Has dropping "Legacy" and becoming, now, simply Soft Machine made any substantive difference in a quartet that has actually been together now for almost a decade? Not really, but it's certain to attract the attention of more fans. And with a release as strong as Hidden Details—an album that feels completely at one with Soft Machine's work of the '70s—whether Soft Machine Legacy or Soft Machine it has, quite simply, delivered its best album of the new millennium.

Track Listing: Hidden Details; The Man Who Waved at Trains; Ground Lift; Heart Off Guard; Broken Hill; Flight of the Jett; One Glove; Out Bloody Intro; Out Bloody Rageous (Part 1); Drifting White; Life on Bridges; Fourteen Hour Dream; Breathe; Night Sky (bonus).

Personnel: John Etheridge: electric and acoustic guitars; Theo Travis: tenor and soprano saxophones, flutes, Fender Rhodes piano; Roy Babbington: bass guitar; John Marshall: drums, percussion; Nick Utteridge: wind chimes (13).

Title: Hidden Details | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: MoonJune Records


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