Canterbury bohos go all academic on their third helping
With their 1970 release, Soft Machine went from quirky psychedelic pop band to jazz-rock pioneers in one fell swoop. Throughout this double LP set (itself a fairly bold move), everything that was great about them is contained within these grooves. And since the departure of original members Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen, writing popular tunes was no longer a priority. Here the group expand on their instrumental talents, bringing in new elements through key players such as Mike Ratledge (piano, organ), Hugh Hopper (bass), Elton Dean (alto saxophone), Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals, Hammond organ, piano, bass, mellotron), along with a few additional personnel, namely Lyn Dobson (sax, flute), Jimmy Hastings (flute, bass clarinet), Rab Spall (violin), and Nick Evans (trombone).
The album consists of four compositions (one on each side of the original vinyl) that are ripe with undulating melodies and weird time changes, no doubt thanks to the influence of composer Terry Riley and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.
First track, Facelift, recorded live on 4th January 1970 at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, is the most experimental. Segments from other performances were spliced in, along with some pretty trippy tape loops and other studio effects. Certainly it’s one of Soft Machine’s most avant-garde excursions, with its atonal phrasing and abstract approach to composition. Maybe the best way to enjoy it is to get stoned, put on a DVD of Forbidden Planet, then press play. Turn the record, and Ratledge’s “Slightly All The Time” is one of those tunes which has Miles written all over it, with a little John Coltrane thrown in for some extra artistic weight. The band’s camaraderie throughout is impressive, as if each member had developed a skill for extra sensory perception, on which they take the listener (and no doubt themselves) on an unexpected journey.
Third track “Moon In June” has to be the highlight, and the last recording to feature Wyatt on vocals with the band, which are exquisite by the way, and provide a hint as to some of the drummer’s future solo efforts. The whole thing has a stream of consciousness quality to it, from Wyatt’s fragile wistful singing to the band’s dream-like Alice In Wonderland playing. Anyone who regards Pink Floyd as being unusual should probably give this song a spin.
“Out-Bloody-Rageous” closes the album, and it’s pretty spacey – lots of layered organ and irregular rhythms, enough to prove that it wasn’t just the Americans who were capable of writing and recording highbrow jazz, because regardless of one’s musical education, this is seriously sophisticated stuff. Wyatt’s intricate drum patterns are superb, as are Dean and Ratledge on their own respective instruments. In fact the whole bloody band are brilliant.
Anyone familiar with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and of course late ‘60s Miles Davis will no doubt take to this album like a duck to water. And while critically celebrated, surprisingly Third would also prove to be highly influential, especially among many egg-headed European musicians who liked their music serious and cerebral.
Call me a snob, but I’d say that the best way to experience the album is on vinyl, because by having to get up off the couch and turn the record, you’re actually bonding with what it is you’re listening to. And if there is an album you might like to bond with, it’s definitely this.