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The Soft Machine - Third CD (album) cover


The Soft Machine


Canterbury Scene

4.22 | 932 ratings

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RIO/Avant/Zeuhl Team
4 stars After a long hiatus from reviewing, I have decided to try my hand at it again - and for my long-overdue, 100th review I have chosen an album which is considered both a classic and a controversial, overrated release. As a matter of fact, even though I am a confirmed lover of the Canterbury sound, I have to admit Soft Machine are far from being my favourites. Indeed, they sometimes sound too convoluted and contrived for their own good, and their particular brand of rambling, free-form jazz-rock is not everyone's cup of tea - as some of the earlier reviews on this page show quite clearly.

However, I must also admit to having a certain weakness for this album. Its four, almost 20-minute-long tracks (originally released as the four sides of a double album) possess atmosphere in spades, although they don't always make for easy listening material. Heavy on woodwind instruments, notably Elton Dean's distinctive sax, they are also a wonderful showcase for Mike Ratledge's keyboard skills. One of prog's unsung heroes, Ratledge is a master of his instrument, and his trademark organ sound is what gives this album its quality as an almost-classic.

If I say that at least three of the four tracks sound more or less alike, it may look like a condescending, if not outright negative remark. In fact, the only track with a real identity of its own is Robert Wyatt's vocal tour de force, "Moon in June", which was the last vocal track ever recorded by the band. Wyatt's vocals have never done much for me, as they are very much an acquired taste - while the man's prowess as a drummer is never in question, his understated, sophisticated style melding seamlessly with Hugh Hopper's intricate bass lines. However, "Moon in June", though it goes on a bit too long, is undoubtedly a charming, haunting piece, with Wyatt's high-pitched vocals sounding at times more like another instrument than a human voice.

The three instrumentals are somewhat similar in both structure and sound, the band's earlier psychedelic leanings shading into an improvisational take on jazz-rock which is not as rich and well-rounded as fellow Canterburians' Hatfield and the North or National Health, but more on the sprawling, relaxed side of things. The amount of eerie noises, especially on opener "Facelift", would make The Mars Volta proud - though, strange as it may seem, they do not detract from the overall experience, but rather add to the album's quirky charm. My personal favourite, though, is closer "Out-bloody-rageous", with a stunning organ solo in its central section bookended by haunting, liquid noises.

Though by no means an easy listen, "Third" is definitely a grower, and a truly progressive offering from a band that seems to have often privileged quantity of output over quality. Even if it is not really 5-star material, it is nevertheless highly recommended to anyone willing to explore prog in all its different incarnations.

Raff | 4/5 |


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