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The Soft Machine - Fifth [Aka: 5] CD (album) cover

FIFTH [AKA: 5]

The Soft Machine

 

Canterbury Scene

3.36 | 231 ratings

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Walkscore
3 stars A flawed gem

Although it continues with much the same types of compositions as on Fourth, this is the first album without Robert Wyatt on drums and this is its Achilles heel. I actually really like the album, and have played it a ton of times over many years. I disagree with those who say it is boring noodling, as I think it is quite inventive - the first I know of that created a new sound by doubling the electric piano using a delay pedal. The compositions are great, and there are great distorted organ, fuzz bass, and sax/saxello solos. However, unfortunately, the drumming does not pull its weight. The first side, which features Phil Howard on drums is the (much) better of the two. Howard plays in a similar style as Wyatt on Fourth, albeit even more free (and thus less tied to any tempo). So, while not nearly as good as it would have been with Wyatt, side 1 is generally listenable. However, side 2 is painful. John Marshall is on drums here (Howard was fired before he could record on side 2), and he plays these songs very straight, very little improvisation, completely precise and very sparse. The contrast with Howard is stark. While Marshall would come into his own on later Soft Machine albums where they went full Mahavishnu-style Jazz Fusion and do very well (e.g. Bundles), on this album he simply does not fit the music. You can hear the problem right away if you compare the version of "As If" (the long song that opens side 2) here to the version on the Peel Sessions which features Phil Howard. The Peel Sessions version is vital, organic, full of life, pulling you along, albeit a bit temporally-challenged, while the version with Marshall is drab, dull, dead. It is really too bad Wyatt didn't drum on this album - it would have (likely) brought this up to or above the level of Fourth and given these recordings the vitality they deserve. I still love the rest of the playing, and the compositions - to my mind these pieces are better than most of what the Softs would produce afterward (particularly Sixth, but even the jazz fusion albums after that). This is innovative music. However, issues within the band meant they couldn't see how to make best use of these compositional gems, and ended up with some sub-par drumming/recordings. Saying this, "All White" is much better here than on the live album on Sixth, "Drop" is a classic Softs composition, up there with their best, and "As If" is also a fantastic composition (but the Peel Sessions album has the best version of that). On balance, I give this 6.1 out of 10 on my 10-point scale, which translates to 3 PA stars.

Walkscore | 3/5 |

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