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The Soft Machine - Fourth CD (album) cover

FOURTH

The Soft Machine

 

Canterbury Scene

3.49 | 304 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

siLLy puPPy
4 stars Although they had only formed a mere five years prior from the ashes of the Wilde Flowers, THE SOFT MACHINE had transmogrified from a beat inspired 60s psychedelic pop and proto-prog entity into a fully fledged jazz-fusion behemoth after adding Elton Dean to the roster for their epic 1970 double length album "Third" which found the trio turned quartet not only dropping the definite article "THE" from their moniker but also found the role of founding member Robert Wyatt's input quickly diminishing from the overall scenario. On the first two SOFT MACHINE albums, Wyatt's role was the main feature with his unmistakably unique vocals showcasing the music but with the addition of Dean along with an additional cast of guest musicians mostly out of the jazz circuits, Wyatt found himself ever more estranged from the creative direction that his fellow band mates were conjuring up around him and by the time "Third" came out he had to fight tooth and nail just to get the one vocal song to be sandwiched into the jazzy skronk wonderland of all things free form jazz surging with psychedelic overtones.

On the logically yet uncreatively titled 4 (pronounced FOURTH), the SOFTS had all but jettisoned their Canterbury influences and psychedelic vocal whimsy in favor of an all out instrumental jazz-fusion attack set on sizzling with Elton Dean casting his weight based off his recent solo album "Just Us" of the same year. The result is the beginning of the classic jazz-fusion era of SOFT MACHINE and on FOURTH they followed Dean's lead who developed his fierce alto sax and saxello playing skills in his days with Keith Tippett. While the avant-garde Ornette Coleman styled free-for-all sax solos whizzing around at light speed play a central part of the overall sound of FOURTH, the psychedelic 60s hadn't been totally erased from memory as Mike Ratledge finds the perfect way to engage his complementary Lowrey organ and Hohner piano riffs into the jazz-rock paradigm that hearken back to the swinging 60s so close yet so suddenly so very far away. Likewise Hugh Hopper's grounding and stabilizing bass lines rein in the loose-wire horn sections augmented by Dean's frenetic sax attacks along with guest musicians Mark Charig (cornet player also of Keith Tippett fame), Nick Evans (trombonist of Keith Tippett fame), Jimmy Hastings (alto flute / bass clarinet of Caravan) and Alan Skidmore (tenor sax also of Keith Tippett fame).

The result of the heft of this brass heavy congregation steered the SOFT MACHINE sound into extreme avant-garde jazz-rock fusion territory which even added yet one more guest musician: Roy Babbington of Delivery to contribute his double bass. The tracks run the gamut of chilled to frenetic. The moderately improvised nine minute opening track "Teeth" takes influences ranging from the bop fueled epics of John Coltrane to the fuzzed out surrealism of Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" era. The track exhibits the perfect compromise between the structured hard bop chord patterns and sophisticated harmonic idioms with the unstructured improvisational soloing of Dean's hyperactive sax runs. "Kings And Queens" offers a completely chilled out contrast, a bass groove dominated Hopper contribution in between the more frenetic constructs created by Ratledge and Dean.

"Fletcher's Blemish" on the other hand is a Dean written piece that takes the free form avant-garde schizoid madness of crazed masters such as Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor and channels their unhinged tendencies through a flurry of tortured jagged sax attacks in a style that is directly lifted from Dean's solo debut. On the original album the second side of FOURTH was completely consumed by the four part suite "Virtually" which are treated as separate tracks but thematically connected and constructed out of a more collective approach of various extended themes that keep enough structure in the mix to allow individual members to go off on musical tangents all the while finding the perfect tension between composition and improvisation although like most of the running time of FOURTH, Dean does seem to get more than the lion's share of soloing time.

While utterly musically ostracized in the very band he helped create, Robert Wyatt may be silent and sitting in the back corner like a castigated child misbehaving on the playground but he is in fact on the album and it would be his last one with SOFT MACHINE before permanently solidifying his newly found Matching Mole (which as is commonly known a parody of SOFT MACHINE from the French translation "Machine molle.") However despite any demotion in creative input to the band's musical selections, Wyatt performs like a pro easily pounding out the heavy duty hardcore jazz drumming skills required of a seasoned veteran to handle when playing in a jazz-fusion ensemble of such magnitude and while he may have suffered a terrible accident which would rob him of his talents, on FOURTH his talents are eked out in a most satisfying way as he effortlessly and impeccably morphs his stylistic approach between the fuzzy psychedelic Gong inspired brume into the punishing freneticism of Dean's sax abuse segments in full hard bop mode.

SOFT MACHINE's FOURTH has been chastised and kicked around since it was released and to this very day remains substantially less revered than its predecessors as well as later releases with some even calling it the absolute nadir of the SOFT's vast and overarching career and i for one am quite disconcerted with how Wyatt's bandmates treated him and subjugated him to the role of a circus chimp who merely went through the motions of what he was told to perform, however at the same time i'm rating the music itself and as a lover of free form jazz and all things musically extreme, i have to fall on the side of loving this one with the caveat of agreeing with the almost universal consensus that it is indeed a step down from the SOFT's first three classics. One of the problems results of course from the obvious overreach of Elton Dean's influence which affects Ratledge's ability to stand out for much of the album despite his warm and inviting key runs filling every nook, cranny and cadence. Taken as a representative album of the Canterbury Scene, this one will surely disappoint but if accepted as a unique slice of early 70s jazz-fusion that happens to have a little of what came before in the mix with an emphasis on free form improv passages, then i have to say that this album easily achieves the "excellent" seal of approval.

siLLy puPPy | 4/5 |

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