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The Soft Machine - Third CD (album) cover


The Soft Machine


Canterbury Scene

4.21 | 984 ratings

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5 stars After releasing two excellent albums, Soft Machine had yet another lineup change. Elton Dean was brought in on saxophone and saxello (and later piano) and thus, the bands creative energy was altered somewhat. Their sound also changed to an almost unrecognisable one, turning almost completely to a jazz sound, rather than the quirky, Dadaist-lyric infused former band they originally were. However, if you are familiar with their first two releases, do not be put off, as this album contains one of the greatest Canterbury tracks of all time (although musically quite removed from their earlier sound), "Moon In June". The rest of the album however may not be enjoyable if you are not keen on jazz rock (think of Nucleus as an example).

For me though, this is one of my favourite albums of all time, even with its minor flaws. The musicianship is astounding throughout and even though it may not be immediately apparent, the compositions are also excellent.

Now onto the music itself:

"Facelift" on Third, consists of very clever "cut and paste" work by Hugh Hopper, as the track actually joins parts of two live performances together. The first live excerpt was taken from the Fairfield Hall, Croydon gig of 4th January 1970, whilst the other excerpt was taken from the Mother's Club, Birmingham gig of 11th January 1970. Both live performances also featured Lyn Dobson on flute. Not only does Hugh Hopper manage to successfully cut and paste it all together, he also manipulates the music towards the end of the track, by reversing it. It is all cleverly done, but unfortunately, the original live recordings are not to studio recording quality, so even on the remastered version, you can hear a tape hum and crowd talking as the track begins. This of course is not too disturbing for me and I cannot imagine the track any other way. As for the playing, well this is of course excellent and Wyatt's drumming cannot be faulted (you have to remember he was not that keen that Soft Machine were heading in a jazz direction) and the rest of the band simply shine as well. No other version of Facelift quite sounds like this and so experimentally, it is quite an achievement.

"Slightly All the Time" (and the rest of the album) was recorded in the studio but from listening to it, you could not tell, as the band are in fine form here. Hopper's bass playing here is the key, whilst Ratledge also adds nice sedate Lowery splashes, as you would expect, adding an additional wonderful and unique solo. Wyatt here does not have much to do, but he again cannot be faulted. However, it is Elton Dean who really shines here on his alto sax and saxello. The second of his two solos really is very typically Elton at his best, especially as he has picked up his saxello here. Also present, is Nick Evans on trombone and Jimmy Hastings on bass clarinet who, much like Wyatt, does not have much to do but adds an interesting underlying melancholly. The way the whole band interact together is just wonderful, as they play off each other fantastically, especially Mike Ratledge, whose nimble fingers and acute hearing makes his playing almost match Elton Dean's saxophone playing note-for-note.

"Moon In June" is the crux of this album. A sublime piece in three-parts written by Robert Wyatt and almost exclusively performed by him. This would, as it happens, be the last "vocals" (Wyatt would continue his scatting at live concerts) you would ever hear by Soft Machine and would lead to Wyatt leaving the band after Fourth, as Wyatt wanted to focus more on vocals and less on drumming. The lyrics are also typically Wyatt and Canterburian, being, as always, quirky, odd and almost unfathomable; musically, it is also the most experimental and progressive track on the album, barely being jazz at all. Infact, it almost sounds like proto-Matching Mole at times, yet the fact it sounds like nothing else on the LP, does not detract from the rest of the tracks. I also do not miss the lack of Elton Dean's presence on here at all, as this is purely Wyatt's self-indulgence, playing drums, piano, organ, as well as supplying vocals. Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge perform on the final part of Moon In June which is actually around the halfway point, as some very distinctive fuzz bass and organ appear quite fantastically from nowhere. This therefore means that it is Wyatt himself that plays the wonderful bass solo that can be heard a 1/4 of the way through. Another typical Wyatt trait occurs on "Moon In June": the track turns into something much more sinister, after a melancholic start. Ratledge plays at his darkest here and I am very glad we all got the opportunity to hear it, as I do not always think he fully fulfilled his potential in Soft Machine. The ending is dark, minimalistic and encroaches on you unexpectedly. Rab Spall's violin sounds like it has been put through a washing machine (due to tape looping), yet it cuts the atmosphere completely into something acute and disturbing, darker even than on Wyatt's Rock Bottom album. Also present is Wyatt singing words from two separate Kevin Ayers songs "Singing a Song in the Morning" and "Hat Song", which are barely audible over bass, organ and violin.

"Out-Bloody-Rageous" (the finest use of tmesis in a song title!) builds up very slowly and very quietly... it is a track that fools the listener at first, it is almost musique concrete and Hopper has been playing with loops and reels again here, as you can hear a sped-up backwards organ and piano. This is just the 4-piece, with no added instruments and when the actual music starts, it is an organ-orientated tour-de-force (Ratledge wrote the track, as might be expected). This is the weakest track on the album for me, mostly due to the return of the musique concrete ambient soundscape a few times but is not a weak tune by any means. After the second brief reprise of the ambience, Elton Dean plays a delightful solo full of passion, this is a highlight of the cut for me and he could play all night and I would never get bored of it.

Reviewing an album such as Third is very difficult, because the album has 4 lengthy tracks, with many different sections, so actually hearing the music is essential in the appreciation of the overall quality of this groundbreaking album of 1970.

Third is not perfect and has its flaws, the biggest for me being the sound quality, which even on the remaster, is not excellent. It does not really detract from my overall opinion of the album though and I still rate it extremely highly.

So for me, this album is 4.8 out of 5 stars and an essential album for lovers of groundbreaking jazz rock and minimilism.

VanderGraafKommandöh | 5/5 |


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