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Soft Machine: Switzerland 1974

John Kelman By

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Thank goodness for Cuneiform Records. Beyond releasing cutting edge new music from now-longstanding groups like The Claudia Quintet and relative newcomers like Norway's Pixel, the intrepid American label continues to unearth, restore and release wonderful archival finds like S.O.S.' Looking for the Next One (2013), and the equally impressive Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop-April '69 (2011), from one of the group's reed players, John Surman. Perhaps its most important work on the archival front has, however, been in sourcing live music from the various incarnations of Canterbury mainstay Soft Machine, from the early Dada-inflected days of Middle Earth Masters (2006) and its more freely improvised middle years heard on Grides (2006) through to transitional periods like NDR Jazz Workshop-Hamburg, Germany May 17, 1973 (2010).

One of the holiest of holy grails for Soft Machine fans has, however, been a recording made at the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival, when a more fusion-oriented Soft Machine debuted with (for the first time since its early days) a guitarist in tow. Long available in low-fi form on YouTube and circulated as equally low quality bootlegs, Cuneiform has finally legitimately licensed the audio and video recording Soft Machine as it entered its final phase as pedal-to-the-metal fusioners, first with guitarist Allan Holdsworth and later, John Etheridge.

Holdsworth had, since his stunning appearance on Nucleus founder Ian Carr's Belladonna (Vortex, 1972) and subsequent work in the group Tempest, already begun making a name for himself as a guitarist with an utterly unique conception and facility that few others could match (then and now). The guitarist—with an inimitable rapid-fire legato style and unparalleled approach to building cascading lines of pyrotechnic prowess—would ultimately go on to work with many others, including American drummer Tony Williams' New Lifetime band on Believe It (Columbia, 1975), the group soon to be known as Pierre Moerlen's Gong on Gazeuse! (Virgin, 1976), French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty on Enigmatic Ocean (Atlantic, 1977), and with Bill Bruford, on the drummer's solo albums like Feels Good to Me (Winterfold, 1978), and also in the first incarnation of progressive rock supergroup U.K., with its eponymous 1978 E.G. Records debut, before launching a solo career that has since positioned him as one of the most influential jazz guitarists of the past four decades.

But while his work with Carr and Tempest kickstarted a career that began in the late '60s with the largely forgotten group 'Igginbottom and its sole recording 'Igginbottom's Wrench (Deram, 1969), his meteoric rise really began with Soft Machine, whose Montreux performance in 1974 came just a couple of weeks before entering the studio to record this incarnation's debut, Bundles (Harvest, 1975), which would almost instantly be accepted as one of the group's most impressive recordings. The majority of Switzerland 1974's material is culled from that album, with a particularly impressive reading of the epic "Hazard Profile" (largely based on a riff that the group's keyboardist/reed multi-instrumentalist Karl Jenkins would repurpose from his own "Song for the Bearded Lady," taken from his early days in Nucleus on the group's second Vortex album, 1971's We'll Talk About It Later), where Holdsworth takes the first, lengthy solo and immediately establishes himself as the star of the group alongside drummer John Marshall, who seems to have an endless amount of energy and invention upon which to draw throughout the hour-long set.

This Soft Machine lineup was somewhat bittersweet, as the only remaining founder, keyboardist Mike Ratledge, was largely relegated to a subsidiary role; still, he's given two strong solo workouts on Switzerland 1974: first, during a latter section of "Hazard Profile" and later, during an encore medley that brings together "Lefty," from the group's first album to feature Jenkins (who would ultimately take over as its primary composer), Six (Columbia, 1973), and the concluding "Penny Hitch (coda)," from Seven (Columbia, 1974), which also features a set-closing guitar solo that's even fierier than Holdsworth's work earlier in the set.

Beyond these, and other tracks from Bundles—including the atmospheric "Floating World" (with Holdsworth contributing a real rarity: wordless vocals); the more incendiary title track; slower-paced but no less visceral "Land of the Bag Snake" (with another mind-boggling Holdsworth solo); and the fiery tempo'd "Peff" which, bookended by "The Man Who Waved at Trains," features an appropriately heated oboe solo from Jenkins. There are also lengthy solo features for anchoring bassist Roy Babbington ("Ealing Comedy," which moves from clean-toned lines to fuzz-toned aggressions of Jimi Hendrix-ian proportions) and "LBO," a solo spot for the seemingly irrepressible Marshall, who augments his muscular kit work with a variety of gongs and other tuned percussion.

The set is, in a word, nuclear. And the sound, while there are some remnant artifacts that have been cleaned up as best as possible (largely some unexpected distortion from Ratledge's Fender Rhodes), is the absolute best it's ever been. The video has also been cleaned up, and while the members of Soft Machine—barring Marshall and, to a lesser extent, Holdsworth—aren't exactly much to look at, with Jenkins looking positively bored despite his playing suggesting otherwise, it's a chance for those who were not around during the brief time this group toured before Holdsworth left, shortly after the release of Bundles, to see two veritable forces of nature in the guitarist and Marshall...and a rare opportunity to see Ratledge as his days in Soft Machine drew to a close.

That much of this material has been readily available on YouTube (whereas many of Cuneiform's previous archival Soft Machine releases have not), makes the release of Switzerland 1974 something of a risk at a time of reduced album sales. Still, the work that the label has devoted to cleaning up both the sound and picture makes this the definitive (and only legal) version of a stellar performance by a group that lasted a little more than a year before Holdsworth left, to be replaced by Etheridge for the group's second-to-last (but, most wish, truly, had been the last) studio record, the more progressive-leaning Softs (Harvest, 1976). This was early days for this version of Soft Machine, and while Floating World Live (Moonjune, 2006) would catch the same group in Holdsworth's final months with the group (and has plenty of its own to recommend), Switzerland 1974 contains the only existing video document of this version of Soft Machine, recorded at a time when it was hungrily moving forward into the final phase of its 15-year run with a guitarist who would soon truly become a living legend.

Track Listing: CD: Hazard Profile; The Floating World; Ealing Comedy; Bundles; Land Of the Bag Snake; Joint; The Man Who Waved At Trains; Peff; The Man Who Waved At Trains (reprise); LBO; Riff II; Lefty; Penny Hitch (coda). DVD: Hazard Profile; The Floating World; Ealing Comedy; Bundles; Land Of the Bag Snake; Joint; The Man Who Waved At Trains; Peff; The Man Who Waved At Trains (reprise); LBO; Riff II; Lefty; Penny Hitch (coda).

Personnel: Allan Holdsworth: guitar, voice; Karl Jenkins: Fender Rhodes piano, piano, Hohner Pianet, soprano sax, oboe; Mike Ratledge: Fender Rhodes piano, Lowrey organ, AKS synthesizer; Roy Babbington: electric 6-string bass; John Marshall: drums, percussion.

Title: Switzerland 1974 | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Cuneiform Records

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