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The Soft Machine - Hidden Details CD (album) cover


The Soft Machine


Canterbury Scene

4.12 | 128 ratings

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siLLy puPPy
4 stars The name SOFT MACHINE evokes god status in progressive rock circles, a band so far ahead of their time that they not only were one of the key pioneers in launching the entire progressive rock universe way back in the mid-60s, but singlehandedly created the jazz-fusion niche world which would finally be penned the Canterbury Scene. The band has been somewhat of a spawning ground for some of the jazz-rock world's most gifted musicians as well as having been a nursery ground for countless other bands to have split off from. For one to trace the family tree of this productive rotating collective over the decades is tantamount to rocket science physics equations with band members leaving, returning and new ones continuously adding new idiosyncrasies. The band can claim nearly thirty musicians in all who have come and gone with a whole bunch of related bands when you take the extended close relatives into consideration.

Just check out this impressive list of SOFT MACHINE spinoffs: 2nd Vision, Adiemus, Daevid Allen Trio, Bluesology, Brainville, Centipede, Command All Stars, Elton Dean's Ninesense, The Dedication Orchestra, Gilgamesh, Gong, In Cahoots, Isotope, Matching Mole, Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, Nucleus, Pip Pyle's Equip'Out, Polysoft, Short Wave, Soft Bounds, Soft Head, Soft Heap, Soft Machine Legacy, Soft Mountain, Soft Works, Symbiosis, Keith Tippett Tapestry Orchestraa, which of course along with Canterbury's other pioneers emerged in the big bang of the entire scene in the nascent proto-prog efforts ofThe Wilde Flowers. And while it may be hard to believe that this band that released their debut all the way back in 1968 is still finding new life, lo and behold an entirely new version of SOFT MACHINE has appeared with their 2018 release HIDDEN DETAILS which emerges 37 years after the last studio album "Land Of Cockayne" and a whopping half century after they forever changed the musical landscape with their eponymously titled psychedelic pop classic debut.

With a release under the original moniker, one would expect this to be an announcement of sorts of some type of reunion album that finds the original members of the classic period getting back together to reclaim their jazzy rock ingenuity of the past. Of course, i'm not really sure if a "classic" lineup has actually ever been established with this band since it seems like every album, studio and live, sports a different lineup as musicians flowed through the band like a never-ending river however personally i would assume that it would include any of the members from the debut to the "Third" era. To assume this, however, you would be mistaken indeed, for the SOFT MACHINE of 2018 is a completely different beast altogether. Well, let me rephrase that, an old beast shedding a part of its moniker to usurp the throne of the progenitors of the original band. Not exactly what i was expecting, however the results aren't nearly as disastrous i had feared. Not by a long shot.

HIDDEN DETAILS, in actuality, is an extension of the related group Soft Machine Legacy which was formed in 2004 as a new variant of yet another related band called Soft Works. This newly coined band in the greater SOFT MACHINE family emerged when guitarist John Etheridge replaced the late great Allan Holdsworth and then released three albums in the forms of the self-titled debut (2006), "Steam" (2007) and "Burden Of Proof" in 2013. Out of the original Softies, only Hugh Hopper was involved on the first two albums before being replaced by Roy Babbington (another 70s member), otherwise the rest of the group consisted of Etheridge on guitars, Theo Travis on sax, flute and Fender Rhodes piano and John Marshall on drums. While not the classic early years, Marshall played drums on "Fifth" and stuck around throughout the rest of the 70s and 80s as did Babbington.

Are you thoroughly confused yet? Well, i am! Just to relay the details of exactly what happened for this new album to come about, the band announced in 2015 that they would tour with the "Legacy" part being dropped out of their name and Soft Machine Legacy minus the Legacy is simply SOFT MACHINE, so in effect HIDDEN DETAILS is R-E-A-L-L-Y, technically speaking, the fourth Soft Machine Legacy album in disguise, JUST to make things in this Canterbury universe even M-O-R-E confusing. And you thought it was only the music that was complex? Well, the proof is in the pudding that absolutely nothing is easy to figure out in this slice of jazz-rock infused world. LOL! Enough of all that! How's the friggin' music you wonder. In short, very good! In fact, so much better than i ever could've hoped for.

Whether you like the name change or not, these guys somehow manage to harness that ineffable SOFT MACHINE sound from the past and embark on a modern day fusionist journey that breathes new life into a rather infertile nook of the progressive rock universe, all the while keeping it firmly grounded in the the contemporary world that animates new creativity into a classic sound all the while brandishing a slick modern production job. Right from the hard hitting opening title track, this quartet elegantly captures the classic SOFT MACHINE zeitgeist with crazily laid out time signatures, heavy sax, bass and drum action as well as a rock guitar sound that the early Softies eschewed. Theo Travis proves to be a veritable brass blower as his technically infused playing reminds of the greats such as Elton Dean's best performances only in a more streamlined and controlled manner.

While these guys, who are well into their 70s i believe, crank out the title track as effortlessly as they would've decades ago, it's not just the technical workouts that bedazzle the listener on HIDDEN DETAILS. The secret sauce is in the veritable smorgasbord variety of the tracks which even include the unthinkable reworkings of "The Man Waved At Trains" (from "Bundles") and "Out Bloody Rageous" (from "Third) which prove that this current SOFT MACHINE lineup was quite confident with their abilities to carry the torch by taking that last leap of faith and dropping the "Legacy" ending of their band name. The former track is a flute rich jazzified slow rocker that triumphantly engages in all the expected jazzy timings and sweet sensuality of a flute based melodic drive. While the latter captures the expected "Third" era warmth but adds a much silkier and smooth spaced out version that takes some of the aggressive drive out of the original. While being faithful to the original in spirit, these modern day renditions are quite an achievement.

Perhaps the greatest triumphs of HIDDEN DETAILS comes from the more complex atmospheric pieces such as the the title track and the angular avant-garde motifs of "Ground Lift" and "Flight Of The Jett" which exude a greater sum of the parts that takes you into an entirely different realm where the sound stabs paint a pointillistic reality on the other side of perception. Masterfully executed and uniquely interwoven into the overall fabric of the album. On the other side of the spectrum lies the immediately more catchy and perceptible melodic (in jazz fashion) tracks such as "Broken Hill" and "Fourteen Hour Dream," the latter of which has a downright danceable groovy bass riff that is accompanied by a soul massaging flute performance. As the album ends with the ambient "Breathe," i take this as breathing a sigh of relief as i just listened to an album that i loved despite having every fear that it would be some irrelevant retreading of the past with nothing but recycled bits regurgitated in a nauseating disrespectful fashion. Wow. I couldn't have been more mistaken.

Progressive rock is a persistent beast and while bands like SOFT MACHINE have never been the most commercially successful, their musical maturity has earned them a high place in the greater rock universe in terms of respect and durability. While the classic combo of musicians like Mike Rutledge, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and Hugh Hopper may only be distant memories for long time prog lovers and mere encyclopedic entries for those of us who weren't around to experience the initial lineups of the great SOFT MACHINE classics, it's reassuring to know that a bunch of stalwart virtuosos of this magnitude are keeping the Canterbury torch burning. HIDDEN DETAILS is a testament to not only to the SOFT MACHINE "Legacy" but to the entire Canterbury Scene actually. While this one will not usurp the throne of classics like "Third" as top dogs in my world, this one does inspire me to fill the gap and investigate all of the other spinoff bands that the members on this album have played in. This was, indeed, one of the greatest surprises of 2018!

siLLy puPPy | 4/5 |


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