'05 is shaping up to be a busy year for bassist Hugh Hopper, who first made a name for himself over 30 years ago as member of the British progressive/fusion band Soft Machine. He'll be touring and recording with Soft Machine Legacy, featuring guitarist John Etheridge, saxophonist Elton Dean and drummer John Marshall all alumni from various incarnations of Soft Machine. He'll be playing some gigs with another off-shoot called Soft Bounds, featuring Dean, pianist Sophia Domancich and drummer Simon Goubert. And he'll be participating in a number of other endeavours, including the Songs from the Beginning Project and Clear Frame.
So it's an opportune time for Cuneiform Records to reissue a remastered version of Hopper's long out-of-print Meccano Pelorus, a live recording that features two versions of his Franglodutch band. It gives listeners a chance to reassess a band that, while not sharing the same kind of name recognition as Hopper's various "Softs associations, occupies its own space within the progressive/fusion continuum.
By the time Hopper came out of his self-inflicted retirement in the early '80s and this band was formed, his writing and playing had made significant leaps forward. These recordings two pieces from the same '87 recording from which most of Alive! was culled, and four from an '89 performance of the group notable for French guitarist Patrice Meyer's involvement find Hopper evolved into a suppler bassist, more capable of the loose interplay that defines this band. And while still possessed of an ability to capture a groove and navigate challenging charts, his sound has become clearer, more defined, even as he retains the deep, in-the-gut visceral quality that has always made him such a formidable presence.
His writing might centre itself around more complex and idiosyncratic concerns like the opening "Wanglosaxon, which features a longish theme covering a variety of rhythmic territories but there's also a looser playfulness at work here, with Hopper quoting The Beatles ("Day Tripper ) here, and Miles Davis ("All Blues ) elsewhere in the set. And while there are a lot of bass figures that define the compositions, once the solos kick in Hopper is far more liberated than he was in his Soft Machine days.
Hopper aside, everyone in the band is worthy of note; but Meyer stands out on the four tracks from the '89 show, consisting of four Hopper compositions including a more open-ended interpretation of "Miniluv from Hopper's first solo album, 1984. Meyer is clearly cut from the same cloth as Allan Holdsworth, with a similarly fluid legato style that incorporates staggering arpeggios, broad intervallic leaps and a language that comes more from jazz than rock; his solos are as exciting as they are cerebral.
Meccano Pelorus remains a vital document of Hopper's evolution into a more interactive player, a writer who combines riff-based, metrically-challenged concepts with greater freedom and interpretive sensibility. Fusion it may be, but there are actually times when this group swings, implying a broader musical understanding.