Soft Machine "Third"
Miles Davis had jazz musicians attempting to play rock style music and The Soft Machine here offer the reverse; rock musicians essaying jazz-style music. In my view, the rock musicians win. There is more of interest occurring in this record than in Miles' "Bitches Brew" lp.
The album opens with the fingernails down a blackboard sounds of Mike Ratledge's keyboards being played through a fuzzbox and straight away we are worlds removed from the tasteful sounds of jazz-lite. This is followed by some skronking on the sax from Elton Dean before bass and drums join in and then there is an abrupt cut to what sounds like a different recording establishing the main theme of the piece. Robert Wyatt contributes some wordless vocals as well as accompaniment on drums. Then another cut into a faster riff section which includes additional sax playing. At this point Elton Dean briefly interjects the Laurel and Hardy theme. Feedback hovers ever present in the background, Elton Dean overblows on his sax causing his tuning and pitch to fluctuate. Then a cross fade into a whole new section featuring rhythmic cymbal useage to the front before this too fades into an organ drone and flute solo. The band then return playing over a simple bass riff becoming more strident. Next comes a section featuring tape manipulation involving speeding up and slowing down some sections and playing some backwards before a fade as the track ends.
Side 2 starts with a bass riff overdubbed with some harmonics before the twin horns come in to establish a theme while the harmonic and rhythmic centre of the piece shifts. Eventually the riff changes into a faster, more propulsive mood, enhanced by Robert Wyatt's cymbal work, and accompanied by a flute. A piano appears for the next theme, its chordal work echoing the earlier bass riffs. A further sudden edit brings in a relaxed theme with again cymbals to the fore while Ratledge appears to have located the volume control on his keyboards and has actually turned it down so it is not feeding back all the time. In fact, this is a nice and gentle reflective piece. Some quicker syncopation follows with sax and drums playing off against each other. The fuzz organ returns to see off the end of the piece with a nice flourish.
Side 3 is taken up by Robert Wyatt's "Moon in June" which may be the most structured composition on the album but is difficult to describe. There are a number of interlinked themes which occur but which also shift. A number of different performances of this song that the Soft Machine did suggest that the structure of the song was not fixed and that different sections were added or taken away from the piece as performance dictated. Similarly, the lyrics to the piece changed with performance which fits with Wyatt's conversational writing style. As with the other tracks on this lp. there are a number of sudden and severe edits into different themes and different instrumentation. Apparently, the final version of the song was assembled from a number of different recordings Wyatt made, sometimes just accompanying himself on all the instruments and sometimes along with Ratledge and Hugh Hopper on bass. The fact that there is no horn playing on this song suggests that it was created before Elton Dean joined the group and before they experimented as a septet with a full horn section which marked their final absorption of jazz playing. There is a striking organ and violin coda while Wyatt sings some lines from songs by former Soft Machine member Kevin Ayers. This is an extraordinary piece of extended songwriting moving across different musical and lyrical themes but which all feel organic and natural rather than contrived. Perhaps it is significant that it is the drummer who creates it, someone who does not feel the need to demonstrate compositional cleverness but focuses on mood and feel. There are some beautiful themes given brief exposure in this piece but which are not repeated.
The final side begins with more tape manipulation before an extended group workout which features perhaps the happiest sounding playing on the record.
This is an inventively satisfying lp. The fact that some of it is a bit creaky and some of the edits jar adds to the charm. It sounds like musicians enjoying what they are playing.