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The Soft Machine - Fifth [Aka: 5] CD (album) cover


The Soft Machine


Canterbury Scene

3.44 | 324 ratings

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3 stars A lot of people blame Wyatt's lack of input and exit for the direction of Fifth and Soft Machine's subsequent albums, but I don't think this is valid because a)Fifth is very similar in sound and atmosphere to Fourth which had Wyatt playing brilliantly and intensely even if he still hated the material and b)since 1970, Wyatt didn't write any compositions for the band, at least none of it was allowed in their albums since then, so, instead of blaming Wyatt's exit for Fifth, I would rather say they would have pursuit this path sooner or later, Robert staying in the band or not, specially since he was the only one of them who "wasn't fond of playing jazz" (Ratledge's words).

Wyatt's exit was more simbolic really but, in the drumming department at least, his absence was felt: his two replacements, first Phil Howard then John Marshall, as good as they are, don't match Wyatt's inventiveness, sense of dynamics or even his classic drum sound, in some instances (like "All White" and "Pigling Bland" for example, both songs Wyatt originally drummed on) there's even an sense of overplaying, worse, Marshall contributes a drum solo, his first of one on each record up until Softs from 1976, and, as you would expect from such solos, it's boring as hell. Howard is freer in his approach, almost as if he didn't care for what everybody else was doing, and he probably didn't, so every single passage of his is like a big solo itself and, because of this approach, Ratledge and Hopper having started to feel superfluous under the noise he was making, sacked him, much to Dean's distaste, leading to his own exit, in early 1972. Marshall, on the other hand, has a more straightforward and simpler approach, basically the rock ethos to support the 'main' instruments, but even then, he sometimes sounds high on steroids.

The atmosphere itself is very much like Fourth, barren, cold and dark, only darker this time because of the sparcity of the arrangements and more songs with quiet intros and even thoroughly quiet. Fifth begins with the grumbling rasp of "All White", one of the record's best examples of a dark and quiet introduction; I would have very much liked it if they kept it's nature and developed it around the theme to create a slow-burning song, but instead, it turns into a somewhat bland jazz tune including the time-unkeeping monster Howard on the drum stool, yet, I consider it to be one of the best pieces here. "Drop" once again has a dark intro, this time with drop sounds and Ratledge's Rhodes piano emulating them, just to turn into a very propulsive but untimately faceless fuzz-organ-dominated tune. "MC" is certainly not on par with Hopper's compositions from Third and Fourth, if "Drop" was faceless then this is bodyless; I quite like the atmosphere of it, again very dark, yet, atmosphere itself doesn't lead very far, so this could have been edited to one minute or even less, because almost 5 minutes of it was unnecessary. "As If" is better than "MC" if only because Marshall keeps a certain rhythm with dynamics without overpolishing it, while the bass weaves some puzzling riffs and themes around it; but I could live without the 'freak-out coda', that most certainly was added just to give Marshall his cue to solo, a piece called "LBO" which I won't even discuss. "Pigling Bland" exists since 1970 (at least), sometimes being played as part of "Esther's Nose Job" and sometimes on it's own; it's a good tune, of course, I just wish it was Wyatt playing, Marshall gets too over-the-top too often. "Bone" is my favourite song from Fifth, it's pure atmospheric free jazz and, apart from "As If", is the only instance from this record where Marshall uses the less-is-more ethos; kudos goes to Elton Dean, because "Bone" resembles almost in nothing the falling-apart "Fletcher's Blemish", I also like the ethnic percussion and the bone flutes in the background as well as Mike Ratledge's fuzz organ soloing in the foreground, it's arguably the last time he sounded so menacing.

Fifth is a good album, but it stops at it. I don't consider it excellent or even very good, but some of it is.

JackFloyd | 3/5 |


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