Soft Machine Live at Henie Onstad Arts Centre 1971 Reel Recordings
Here's some heady stuff from what in 2010 feels like a golden era, dubious though that notion might be in reality. There's already ample evidence that the Mike Ratledge / Elton Dean / Hugh Hopper / Robert Wyatt lineup of Soft Machine never played the same set the same way twice, and it's a tribute to the group's levels of interaction and energy that this set adds something to the retrospective view. Both of the sets rescued from oblivion on this two-CD set are continuous, although they both take in themes that the group probably performed countless times. Nothing, however, is hackneyed or overcooked.
The same can be said of the remastering. Despite a balance that's a little dodgy in places, the clarity of the audio is such that the group's collective thinking shines out with unprecedented strength, as does the fact that it possessed an identity forged from highly individual instrumental styles and sources. The magisterial wheeziness of Ratledge's Lowry organ is projected with paradoxical vividness, whilst it's also possible to hear why Wyatt's drum style might be described as an amalgam of Elvin Jones (in the sense of his hyperactivity and the level of intent that underscores it) and Charlie Watts (in the sense that he seems to play just behind the beat).
The continuous nature of both of the sets emphasises how the bandwithout being an improvisational outfit as suchnever fundamentally repeated itself. Whilst themes such as "All White" and "Fletcher's Blemish" are here, they are merely passing points of reference for musicians and listeners alike. The group's combined effort was always greater than the sum of its parts and the precision with which the music has been restored reinforces the point. It's unlikely that any preplanned method for mutual cueing was employed, which sometimes makes the themes, when they do emerge, simply staging posts on the way to some greater nirvana. This is certainly the case in the first set, where both Ratledge and Dean are afforded the chance to solo at length, whilst Hopper and Wyatt put out that elasticity of rhythm they almost owned the patent on.
The second set reveals no reduction in the band's creativity. Although its brand of free play might seem a little aimless, particularly in the opening minutes, it's again the case that such a passage serves its purpose in the subsequent realization of something greater. At this stage in its existence, Soft Machine was firing on all cylinders. Discussion of whether this was despite or because of creative tensions within the lineup doesn't serve much purpose anymore. The shortcoming of the mix referred to above is most prominent on the second disc, with Dean on alto sax out of balance particularly with Ratledge and Hopper, although not even this really matters given the incendiary quality of the music. Mutual understanding between the players ensures that the music always has momentum even in its more reflective moments. Overall, the results are a documentation of an evening that for reasons both physical and otherwise we just might not witness the like of anymore. The moment in time is thus lifted from its context and rendered timeless.
Tracks: CD1: Intro; Facelift; Virtually; Slightly All The Time; Fletcher's Blemish. CD2: Neo-Caliban Grides; Out-Bloody-Rageous; Eammon Andrews; All White; Kings and Queens; Teeth; Pigling Bland; Noisette.
Personnel: Michael Ratledge: organ, electric piano; Elton Dean: alto saxophone, saxello, electric piano; Hugh Hopper: bass guitar, Duo-Fuzz pedal; Robert Wyatt: drums, cow bell, voice.