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The Soft Machine - Fourth CD (album) cover


The Soft Machine


Canterbury Scene

3.58 | 426 ratings

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3 stars While Third is inventive and in constant combustion, Fourth is barren, cold and desolate. It's almost as if the previous record was an atomic bomb and this is the aftermath of the explosion, and, in a sense, it is. By this time, every member was tired of the band and virtually hating each other, tension was specially high between Robert and the rest, isolating him and eventually leading to his exit in August 1971. Fourth reflects all of this and it also reflects the spirit of a band that isn't really sure of what next step to take and how to get away from the shadows of their masterpiece, and yet, this is entirelly different from Third.

Not quite. At least not mostly: so they basically carry on in the direction they began with Third or the state of mind, that is, to gradually move deeper into the world of jazz-rock, only this time staying more to the jazz side of the equation; in fact, there are parts here that are almost exclusively jazz. And that's about it.

The music on Fourth (apart from "Teeth" which, in spite of several seemingly improvised parts, is actually carefully written right to the bone) is freer and almost "stream of consciousness" in some points, basically glacial, allowing itself to move to unnexpected directions even when underpinned by a riff, but sometimes there are no riffs at all. Another thing that sets it apart from it's predecessor, and just about every other Soft Machine record, is the volume of this music: it is not intentionally mixed low or suffering from a bad transfer of a master tape, the music is played that way, in this laid back style and low tone, even "Fletcher's Blemish" with all of it's dissonance is actually very quiet. This overall quietness gives Fourth a liquid quality, a sense that things may actually float away even when the music is quite dense.

The mix is crystal clear and every single instrument, from Roy Babbington's double bass to Mark Charig's cornet, can be heard perfectly, with the sole exception of Wyatt's drumming. Sure, Wyatt's skin pounding has always been about atmosphere, a map, if you will, where the others can draw their lines while being given support, but on Fourth, Wyatt's so lost in the mix that sometimes it sounds he has no bass drum at all or is playing percussion instead. On "Teeth", for example, in the last sections, where he is weaving a storm behind Ratledge's fuzz organ riffage and the wall of brass, he is only barely audible.

When Fourth's "Teeth" opens with a double bass you know things are going to be different, even in it's complexity, this is a jazz tune, and a great accomplishment at that. It is a good tune, even if the several changes and sections lose some of it's cohesiveness. But my favourite tune on Fourth is most certainly "Kings And Queens", which is actually very reminiscent of "Noisette" from Third, with an equally simple but effective bassline and quiet and elegant atmosphere, no wonder Hopper wrote it. It is a beautiful tune all the way, but it gets even better near the end when Hopper and Wyatt slowly dissolve the rhythm, Ratledge's delicate Wurlitzer piano gets more prominent and Dean stops playing, giving way for Charig and Evans to do their magic with their respective cornet and trombone. Even though I normally enjoy dissonant stuff, I must confess I'm not fond of "Fletcher's Blemish", it lasts too long without any cohesive hook and literally gets on my nerves. Elton Dean was a lover of free jazz and I really respect his tastes as well as his playing and his right to compose, but "Bone" from Fifth really shows how he could make fine free jazz with much lesser notes. "Virtually" is, I must say, a fitting end for the album, another atmospheric and elegant tune from Hugh Hopper which I enjoy quite a lot, actually. The first two parts are my favourites as they manage to make a very good epilogue of Fourth as a whole and showcase everybody's talent and styles. The other two parts aren't bad either, the third containing some angry tones from Hopper's fuzz bass over Ratledge's Lowrey organ chords while the fourth is mildly experimental and, in my opinion, a good way to close the whole experience.

Fourth is an anomaly in Soft Machine's history, but I'm fond of it anyway, yet, some of it is a bit too much and, when put close to their previous three, it just hopelessly fades, therefore, I cannot give it more than 3 stars.

JackFloyd | 3/5 |


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