Soft Machine ‘Hidden Details’ CD/DIG (Dyad) 3/5

In the early 1970s Soft Machine were one of the most progressive British bands to emerge and seamlessly fused psychedelic jazz and challenging rock into a wholly distinctive sound. Of the original members, drummer and percussionist John Marshall and acoustic/electric guitarist John Etheridge remain, while bass guitarist Roy Babbington has been associated with the band as far back as 1971. More recent multi-reedist and Fender Rhodes player Theo Travis completes the current quartet and the band are at pains to indicate that the new material is not a re-enactment of the past. Post-Robert Wyatt and Karl Jenkins, Soft Machine have indulged fans in some of their legacy projects, but this new recording is exactly fifty years on form their debut self-titled album.

Thus, this much anticipated new album by the group poses questions for longer term fans of how the new music shapes up to their repertoire back in the 1970s. On this evidence alone, the music has a more concise and emphasized rock tinge, and is somewhat lighter on jazz content, though there are certainly some examples of lengthy keyboard and reed dominated passages on occasion. For example, on the two part ‘Out Bloody Intro’ and ‘Out Bloody Rageous, Part 1’, the gentle sound of the Fender leads into some excellent improvisation with guitar and soprano saxophone operating in tandem. Atmospheric percussion à la Pharoah Sanders from his explorative Impulse period offers more of an ambient feel on ‘Breathe’, with keyboard to the fore, while the gentle ballad, ‘Broken Hill’, has a strong Santana-esque guitar solo in the intro. One pleasing feature throughout are the melodic bass lines and on ‘The Man Who Waved At Trains’, it is the bass that combines resourcefully with Fender, electric guitar and flute. Something more akin to a jazz-folk sound is created on ‘Fourteen Hour Dream’, with a bustling bass line, while electric guitar and flute work effectively together. As the sleeve notes attest, this may well be an entirely different experience and performance when Soft Machine are heard live and playing some of their more familiar band repertoire, but this is strictly a studio recording only and judged solely on those terms. There is still a good deal of creativity in the new incarnation of the group, but some of that magic has sadly been lost with the passing of time.

Tim Stenhouse