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The Soft Machine - Volume Two CD (album) cover


The Soft Machine


Canterbury Scene

4.06 | 481 ratings

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Dick Heath
Special Collaborator
Jazz-Rock Specialist
5 stars One of about half dozen albums in my lifetime, first heard being played on a record shop's speakers and I had to have it - (btw that was Musicland In Kingston, who had stock of the US import many weeks before the album's UK release date in the 60's).

This wasn't quite like what I had ever heard before. This was new: especially rock music being putted together and played like I had never heard before. Side one is really one track, despite the sub-titles offered on the sleeve notes: a long song which keeps changing tempo and modes and ideas (and these at first seemed quite whacky). This sounded to me to be cutting edge rock - yet tempered by jazz, illuminating in my mind what I had only read in magazine reviewing the performances of the more avante gard bands of the British psychedelic underground. I could just about cope with the jazz (I had heard the likes of Mike Westbrook and a few of the other young British jazzers) but it wasn't the lacklustre trad heard too often on radio (or the modern jazz of Brubeck), this was something particularly British.

And then there was that vocalist: what a strange voice, what were those freaky lyrics - subsequently John Peel called it 'the school of anti-song', and within the last few months saxophonist Theo Travis called it one of the rare examples of 'jazz vocal with a British accent'. Both definitions after 35 years of listening to Robert Wyatt as a vocalist, hitting close to the centre of the target. It took a Saturday afternoon to crack those lyrics with the daft opening featuring the British alphabet and then sung in reverse order about 4 minutes later (note: Y is heard in LH channel while the rest of the alphabet in the RH stereo channel - watch-out for those throw away jokes). Through the longer, complex instrumental breaks Wyatt comes back, here singing about the joys of being a British hippy, then something in Spanish lost in the mix and finally coming back to thank Noel Mitch & Jim for 'our exposure to the crowd' before thanking Mike (Ratledge or manager Jeffreys?, is the current debate) for ???? (well this is being debated as well). Then the coda and a free jazz ending. Amazing stuff and only half way through.

Side 2 has a change of mood although it gets even more jazzy. That is apart from 'Dedicated To You But You Weren't listening', (the most covered Machine song???). A song written by Hugh Hopper, sung by Wyatt to an acoustic guitar, with its metaphysical lyrics (how many songs include lines like: "Famous Parabolic Version" or "Give Me The Cure, Give Me The Cure, Give Me The Cure, Help me".......?), a beautifully weird song that haunts. Then the band are back down to business with just over 10 minutes of avante rock (or avante jazz ??) instrumentals - and a great potted drum solo from Wyatt.

And the rest of the band/ Ratledge - frightening, complex, accomplished on keys - nobody sounding like this before not even Keith Emerson, who then would have been the immediate comparison, (in passing: how can anybody omit Ratledge from a keyboard poll- suggests limited musical horizons). And Hugh Hopper, replacing Kevin Ayers on bass, providing Machine with a very different sound, low in the bottom and muddy with a fuzz effect that filled the space that a three piece group might leave in their wake. Hey apart from the 3 minutes of "Dedicated", there is no guitar................ however, the saxophone does duties in support c/o Hugh's brother Brian.

This is a seminal British album,THE precursor to British jazz rock, the half way house between psychedelia (of 'Soft Machine') and jazz rock fusion ('Third' and after). But also an album that also has large chunks of recognisable straight prog rock. This especially comes home to you when you hear Soft Machine's 'Live At Paradiso' - recorded 2 weeks after they finished 'Volume 2'. In Amsterdam, Soft Machine as a three piece lacked the jazz sax, and with a considerable shuffle around of tune order, the music of 'Volume 2' sounds less jazz-based. Instead the progressive rock elements are more obvious - perhaps allowing direct parallels to be drawn with The Nice.

In summary a great timeless album but one that is far from safe.

Dick Heath | 5/5 |


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