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Soft Machine Backwards Review

Compilation. Released 2002.  

BBC Review

...this is the musical equivalent of architectural brutalism; bold, stark, utopian,...

Chris Jones 2002

There are times in this post-modern sample-everything cultural void that we call the early 21st century that you hear a piece of music that fills you with equal amounts of joy and sadness. Joy that someone once, dared to be this good; and sadness that barely anyone bothers anymore. It's at times like this that you feel like Indiana Jones rooting around in some aural desert for scraps of genius. It seems simply incredible that stuff like Backwards can reside in someone's attic for 30-odd years while some vacant-eyed puppet gets their latest single released in five different formats designed to keep the landfill sites brimming over.

OK, grumpy old man's rant over. But the fact remains that music of this quality deserves your full attention. By late 1969 The Softs were approaching a kind of critical mass. With the four-piece line up of Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper, Mike Ratledge and Elton Dean firmly established after their variable psychedelic origins, the band could now truly push the envelope. Aficionados always cite Third as their crowning achievement with its extended side-long compositions leaving other so-called progressive acts to eat their dust. Half of the material here is made up of this ground-breaking work ("Facelift" and "Moon In June") with three tracks recorded live a few weeks after that album's recording. As always with this band, the themes allow some of the most distinctive extemporising. Ratledge's Lowry organ was almost singlehandedly the source of the fabled Canterbury sound, while Hopper's bass is a fuzz-driven monster; less jazz rock than dystopian juggernaut.

Tracks four and five ("Facelift" and the beautifully titled "Hibou Anemone And Bear") allow the listener to compare and contrast an earlier prototype. These tracks feature a rare septet version of the band with Dean's sax augmented by a brass section consisting of Marc Charig, Lyn Dobson and Nick Evans. Too expensive and unwieldy to support, this format were only captured on tape a couple of times and possessed an almost frightening sonic power, unmatched before or since. Add to this a lovingly restored acetate of Wyatt's demo of "Moon In June" and you've got an album of no small importance.

Why should you bother? Isn't this just a trainspotters addition to a back catalogue now covered in the dust of ages? Hell no, as my Granny used to say. Backwards is much more than a completist's dream. It encapsulates a time of genre-defying freedom. Not simply jazz rock (which unfortunately this outfit were partly responsible for); this is the musical equivalent of architectural brutalism; bold, stark, utopian, committed to a bright new future and doomed to be misunderstood by subsequent generations. Dare to open your ears and you'll begin to wonder where we went wrong when we allowed something as magical as this to be killed by indifference.

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