A guilty pleasure no longer, we don’t have to wait for the critics to catch up.
Sid Smith 2007
History tells us that after Third, Soft Machine went to hell in a handcart, reduced to mere fusion noodlers thanks to the malign influence of Karl Jenkins. Well, history as the man said, is bunk. Accepting Third’s legendary status (further reinforced with an additional live disc from their ground-breaking concert at the Proms in 1970), and discarding received wisdom, there’s a neglected treasure-trove ripe for discovery.
The subtle electro-acoustic blend of Fourth has an understated coolness in which their augmented horn section is harnessed to a thoughtful score. Deployed to incisive effect on the angular “Teeth” (written by keyboardist Mike Ratledge), it’s equal to anything from Third. The four-part “Virtually” introduces muted sinuous layers of cascading lines over Hugh Hopper’s sepulchral fuzz bass; proto-ambient jazz-rock, anyone?
Bleak and ambiguous, Fifth is a game of two halves thanks largely to the use of two diametrically-opposed drummers - evidence of the creative crisis of these now post-Wyatt times. The shifting squalls of Phil Howard’s cymbals says free jazz as favoured by sax player Elton Dean, whilst John Marshall’s crisp precision pulls it nearer Hopper and Ratledge’s camp.
As a composer, Ratledge was by now a spent force and it was the recruitment of Karl Jenkins, fresh out of Ian Carr’s Nucleus, which solved the impasse. Opting for a Reichian, jewel like minimalism both Six and Seven overflow with magical moments. Ratledge’s last great contribution, the dreamy “Chloe And The Pirates” on Six contains the definitive Jenkins oboe solo, whilst the bowed-bass ruminations from long time collaborator Roy Babbington on “Down The Road” from Seven lends an organic contrast to the swirling loops of electronic textures enveloping their overall sound.
Whilst it’s true the Softs ended with a whimper that judgement doesn’t apply to any of these reissues. Ultimately, their crime was departing from the critic’s tickboxes after Third for which they were punished. Just as the once reviled prog-rock is being slowly rehabilitated, their peculiarly English brand of considered jazz-rock will also have its day. A guilty pleasure no longer, we don’t have to wait for the critics to catch up.