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The Soft Machine - Middle Earth Masters CD (album) cover

MIDDLE EARTH MASTERS

The Soft Machine

 

Canterbury Scene

2.59 | 21 ratings

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Dick Heath
Special Collaborator
Jazz-Rock Specialist
3 stars At last we have a missing link between the 'Rock Generation' demo recordings (subsequently a decade later gained the name 'Jet Propelled Photograph') and the first legitimate Soft Machine studio recording of 1968. Many of the tunes on the 'Middle Earth Masters' will be found on both these other recordings - but here the gloves are off, as recording studio restrictions are not imposed. This is early Machine (post Daevid Allan), freaking out with audience and having the space to improvise.

At first listening, a non-Machine fan will be most disappointed, however, a Machine freak should be delighted. But I would ask anybody curious about early prog and jazz rock fusion bands to have a little tolerance, wrt the sonic quality heard here. Beneath the distortion, the channel imbalance and vocals lost in the distance, a gold mine of great inventive music lurks. We are lucky to have these recordings (as most of the text of liner notes will reveal), and this is an important oral document in the form of three snap- shot live recordings of progressive music evolving out of the British pop and pop- psychedlia heard for the first time in the mid 60's.

The album has a mix of the 2 to 4 minute pop or psychedelic pop songs which takes few risks, interdispersed with what the out-of-London club and hall managers too often disliked because the longer tunes were almost impossible to dance to. For example there is an extended version of Brian Hooper and co.s 'Hope For Happiness', kicking off with Wyatt giving out a vocal drone, but a minute or so later, Ratledges' Lowery smashes in - with Ayer's bass - so that Wyatt's voice is drown out by startlingly innovative keyboard solo. The imbalance of the mix favours Ratledges' organ, but this is what I want, it is superb. It most certainly reminds me that when this site has polls about keyboard players, any omission of Ratledge should instantly invalidate the poll - what you smacks you in the ears here is that in 1967 Ratledge is so ahead of Emerson or Wright, and he ain't playing in the blues-jazz style of Brian Auger, Graham Bond or Georgie Fame (to name a few). His technique is excellent, the rock improv is innovative (sorry I have to keep using that word - or literally 'progressive'), and the use of sonic distortion to achieve effects from a pre- synth keyboard was then frightenly new. The CD is worth its price for these insights to what really was happening almost night by night in the progressive underground scene in the UK.

As Jon Newey (current editor of Jazzwise), reminds in a second set of liner notes: what you hear on this CD, is remarkably like being in the acoustically unfriendly cellar of the Middle Earth Club, front row, watching the Soft Machine trio energetically sweat out this new progressive music for the punters. I'm reminded so much of that wall of sound, painfully loud in many other clubs and halls at the time for many other 60's bands - and loving it.

Alas probably not an album for all, but Machine freaks and rock historians ought to be queuing up for it.

Dick Heath | 3/5 |

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