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The Soft Machine - Fourth CD (album) cover


The Soft Machine


Canterbury Scene

3.49 | 305 ratings

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5 stars Well, Fourth is a logical progression from Third, with the band voyaging ever increasingly into the seas of instrumental fusion and away from their psychedelic-cum- vocals beginnings. As can be guessed from this trajectory, Robert Wyatt was being pushed further and further out of frame. Notably, his role on this album is strictly drumming with no vocals. Still, he hid his disenfranchisement well, and lays down some excellent work here. At its best, the brand of fusion that the band was developing was rather unique sounding. Obviously, it drew influence from the usual suspects (e.g., the abrupt cadenzas of Coltrane and sensitive feel of the ballads from Miles Davis' quintet) but injected on top of that British elements that don't show any direct correspondence to other prominent fusion bands of the time (e.g., the backwards tape loops experimentation, the rock fuzz-bass of Hopper, the wailing organ of Ratledge).

Aptly described by Hugh Hopper as a "difficult to severe to bloody" piece to play, Mike Ratledge's "Teeth" is my favorite Soft Machine piece and a true, underrated classic of prog instrumentals. One of their most intricately composed, going in just over 9 minutes through unpredictable phases of fast and slow, intricate order and chaotic rage. There are two moments (among many) that I particularly love. One is right after the opening fanfare with the uneven call-response of Roy Babbington's acoustic bass and Elton Dean's corkscrew sax lines-the band gets down to business with a 3/4 shuffle memorable for Roy Babbington's sprightly runs interlocking with Wyatt's go-for-broke drumming. Another is in the middle, when the piece bursts into a Coltranian crescendo: Dean and Ratledge locking into a melodic cadenza, Hopper's fuzz-bass growling from out of nowhere, and Wyatt's drums beating like waves against a rock, before these musical elements gradually meld and begin swirling around and around like the formation of a whirlpool.

For all of the busyness of "Teeth," by stark contrast "Kings and Queens" represents one of the band's most stripped-down, laid back pieces. It somewhat resembles a blues form, in 6/4 cycling between Dmin and a shorter stretch of Bmin. "Fletcher's Blemish" is a piece contributed by free-jazzer Dean, and the side-long "Virtually," composed by Hopper, acts as a kind of summary statement of all the elements heard in the previous songs.

Of course, there are those who will always maintain that any Soft Machine worth hearing ended at Third. To that I can only say out-bloody-rageous, though I guess can respect that the mid-period of the Softs ain't going to be for everyone, particularly those who disdain fusion. As for Fourth, though it peaks early, it remains compelling throughout. After his final outing with Soft Machine, Wyatt would depart to form Matching Mole.

olga | 5/5 |


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