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Soft Machine Volume Two Review

Album. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

No one makes records like this anymore.

Chris Jones 2009

By the end of 1968 the Soft Machine had parted company with founder and bass player Kevin Ayers. Ayers, who operated at a more leisurely pace and was less jazz inclined than drummer Robert Wyatt and keyboardist Mike Ratledge, had been put off touring, at least temporarily, by the experience of supporting The Jimi Hendrix Experience acrioss the USA. But following a brief hiatus the band reformed with former road manager and school friend Hugh Hopper on bass. Joined here by brother Brian - another key figure in Canterbury musical history - on sax, it was Hugh's vastly developed sense of melody, combined with the aforementioned love of jazz that saw the band enter Olympic Studios with engineer George Chkiantz and record this masterpiece.

Volume Two's first side begins with Wyatt reciting the alphabet, ending the side's suite of songs by doing the same, backwards. This mixture of the absurd and the serious that was to eventually tip in the direction of the latter (forcing out the more whimsical Wyatt), provides a wonderful tension that no other band has ever really replicated though many have tried (cf: Hatfield And The North). Fearsome chord progressions (Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listening), free noise (Fire Engine Passing With Bells Clanging) and even scatting in Spanish (Dada Was Here): this was no ordinary college band.

Even the infamously po-faced Ratledge was open to a touch of tomfoolery at this point. Pig's exploration of the role of women's underwear in the mating ritual is hilarious, while underpinned with a time signature that they virtually patented in later years. As Long As he Lies Perfectly Still is a truly moving tribute to the departed Ayers: Mike Ratledge's majestic piano chords declaim over his own distorted organ, Wyatt's swinging cymbals and Hugh Hopper's monstrous fuzz bass while Wyatt sings lyrics that are equal parts affectionate, silly and mocking.

Volume Two could be said to be the band's best album. It was a taste of the pre-post modern: relegating lyrics to the role of noise that merely describes what the band's doing (''In his organ solos, he fills 'round the keyboards, knowing he must find the noisiest notes for you to hear'' - Thank You Pierrot Lunaire), or name checking friends of the group (''Thank you Noel and Mitch. Thank you Jim, for our exposure to the crowd. And thank you for this coda Mike, you did us proud'' - Have You Ever Bean Green?). No one makes records like this anymore.

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