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The Soft Machine - Seven CD (album) cover

SEVEN

The Soft Machine

 

Canterbury Scene

3.67 | 265 ratings

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MusicHead196809
4 stars This album to me seems to put a full stop to all that had gone before within Soft Machine's development from the Dada practicing psychedelic funsters they started out as to the cerebral (some might say downright cold, clinical and mathematical) fusion practitioners that they had become by 1973. With Mike Ratledge the only founder member remaining from the original band, it's no surprise that you'll find no 'Hope For Happiness' here...

With no album having the same personel as the previous one (although one could argue that 'Third' & 'Fourth' defy that statement, but that's not something I need to elaborate on here) it's only logical that each subsequent album by this band would be different to the last whilst preserving the identity of this most unclassifiable band. Are they a rock band trying to play jazz? Are they a bunch of jazz players trying to play rock? Are they neither of these? That seems to be the constant debate surrounding this highly enigmatic group. Perhaps it would be best just to consider their output as simply Soft Machine music and leave it at that... Should one wish to listen to their entire studio output from beginning to end, there is a very strong continuity and, dare I say it, consistency to their canon that is quite unique.

Which brings us to the album in question. From the introduction of ex Nucleus drummer John Marshall on the second side of 'Fifth' via the replacement of the now sadly deceased Elton Dean with ex Nucleus reedsman Karl Jenkins to the replacement of long standing (and again, sadly deceased) Hugh Hopper with ex Nucleus (do you see a pattern forming here?) Roy Babbington as full time bass player, it wouldn't be unfair to say that this album would inevitably draw comparisons with that band's oeuvre. It's to the credit of the four musicians involved in this album that even with a cursory listen, it does not.

What it DOES bear comparison with is The Softs previous record: the ideas and musical tangents that had begun to be explored on that album are presented here with a much sharper focus and clarity. If one takes the rambling 'The Soft Weed Factor' from 'Six' and we're to listen to the highly crafted and MUCH more precise 'Snodland'/Penny Hitch' from 'Seven', this concentration of ideas is blindingly apparent. The other interesting factor is how the two main composers in the band at this point try harder than at any other point in the history of Soft Machine to write to the strengths of the musicians involved and the overall sound of the band as opposed to using the group as simply just a vehicle for their won musical agendas.

There are some very significant things that occur on 'Seven': the main one being it's the last album to feature Mike Ratledge's fuzz box powered Lowry organ (a Lowrey Holiday Deluxe to be precise, fact fans!) and the first to feature him soloing on that notoriously difficult to control instrument the EMS Synthi A synthesiser, notably so on the uncharacteristically rowdy (for Karl Jenkins) opener 'Nettlebed'. It's also highly noticeable that Karl Jenkins has by now adopted the rôle of principal composer and had begun to concentrate more on playing second keyboard rather than his usual oboe, baritone and soprano saxophones. It's also very noticeable that, as a soloist, Jenkins' limitations become very apparent in comparison to Elton Dean's highly fluent and breakneck speed flights of fancy on previous Soft Machine albums. The replacement of Hugh Hopper with Roy Babbington brought to the band a bass player who had enormous respect for how Soft Machine's music sounded under Hopper's tenure. He also brought the sound of another rarely seen instrument to the band's sonic palette in the form of the Fender Bass VI, giving a more melodic underpinning to John Marshall's faultless drumming whilst losing none of the rhythmic drive and pure groove of Hopper's style.

"So what's the music like?" I hear you cry. A very satisfying listen (to my ears) is the short answer. There's everything here that a fan of mid-period Soft Machine wants to hear: interesting musical schools of thought sometimes juxtaposed in unlikely yet successful combinations (fusion minimalism, anyone?), much more concise composition than previous albums which means that whilst not every piece on this album may be to your taste, none of them outstay their welcome by virtue of both their brevity and the incredibly high standard of musicianship on display. There's the hard 'n' fast riffing of 'Nettlebed', 'Tarabos' & 'Block'; the gentle, reflective tone poem that is 'Carol Ann', the measured beauty of 'Day's Eye', the showcasing of drummer John Marshall's percussion creativity with 'D. I. S.' (the story behind the naming of this piece and why it sounds like it does can be found in Graham Bennett's excellent book 'Out-Bloody-Rageous') as well as the aforementioned fusion minimalism of 'Snodland/Penny Hitch' and the two segued closing numbers 'The French Lesson' & 'The German Lesson'. What really makes the album a very satisfying listen is the running order: a near perfect ebb and flow of musical impressions that maintain interest by dint of their arrangements and the exceptional musicianship from all involved.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, 'Seven' is the full stop to everything that went before it in the Softs' history. With their next album came a label change and that most unexpected addition: guitars. Things went in a very different direction for Soft Machine after this. Given it's place in the Soft Machine timeline and the fact that in an interview at the time Mike Ratledge mentioned that he was rather pleased with it, anyone with a passing interest in Soft Machine could do worse than give this one a listen and try and enjoy it on its own merit, without the band's historical baggage, and I think you won't be disappointed! In the context of the rest of Soft Machine's output, I give 'Seven' a well deserved four out of five stars. Many thanks for reading!

MusicHead196809 | 4/5 |

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