Review Summary: A sumptuous blend of eclectic prog and jazz-rock fusion.
By the time Soft Machine released this album in 1976 they had undergone so many personnel changes that the group comprised a totally different set of musicians who debuted with 'The Soft Machine' ten years earlier. Founding members Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen had long since departed and Robert Wyatt, who went on to form Matching Mole, had bowed out after the band's seminal masterpiece 'Third'. Journeyman guitarist Allan Holdsworth had come and gone and had been replaced by John Etheridge. The main driving force behind the band had now become keyboardist Karl Jenkins who is credited with most of the song-writing on here. As to be expected, such a plethora of line-up changes had altered the character of the music quite significantly and this album is quite far removed from the quirky Canterbury Scene progressive psychedelia of the early years.
Allan Holdsworth's contribution on guitar was undoubtedly the centrepiece of this album's predecessor, the jazz-fusion fueled 'Bundles', but he is hardly missed on here with Etheridge taking up his mantle with aplomb. One listen to the blistering fusion shredding of 'Camden Tandem' will dispel any doubts as to the man's dexterity. But Etheridge is by no means a one-trick pony and throughout the album his playing covers a range of styles and moods ranging from jazzy widdling to Andy Latimer style melodic leads. Indeed, the sheer variety of material on this album is its main draw, and not just with respect to the guitar playing. The bedrock for the album is surely jazz-rock but it contains some quite beautiful pastoral sections, compelling melodies and material that veers into symphonic prog, albeit with chamber orchestra dimensions.
Opener 'Aubade' is far removed from the free-jazz sensibilities of Wyatt-era Soft Machine and anyone reeling from the intensity of something like 'Third' would be forgiven in assuming, quite correctly as it happens, that it is an entirely different set of musicians at work on here. The yearning sax tones of Alan Wakeman take on a plaintive double-reed woodwind sound that perfectly suits the sonorous mood of the piece. The eclectic double header of 'The Tale of Taliesin' and 'Ban-Ban Caliban' serve as a perfect representation of what this incarnation of Soft Machine were all about and show how they were able to perfectly blend jazz and psychedelia with traditional progressive rock. Squelchy space-rock wah-wahs bubble underneath classically inspired piano structures and fusion style lead guitar with styles ranging from gentle rolling melodies to urgent jazz-fusion and bold symphonics. Wakeman's inventive sax and Etheridge's swaggering chops are inevitably the most conspicuous elements of the music but the expert rhythm section of Roy Babbington and John Marshall take the cake in a number of places, especially on the more frantic sections of 'Ban-Ban Caliban'.
As previously alluded to, the guitar playing of John Etheridge veers towards the more melodic end of the spectrum in a number of instances and this is exemplified on the lilting 'Song of Aeolus' which sounds like it could almost be lifted from an early Camel album. 'Out Of Season' is another example of the more melodic aspects that crept into Soft Machine's music on this release. This wonderful piece of music exudes a gently yearning yet unresolved quality and rolls along on a timeless main theme which wouldn't sound out of place as part of a modern movie soundtrack. The band do hark back to their earlier years on the jazzy 'One Over The Eight', an infectiously funky '70s police-theme jam that Starsky & Hutch would be proud of, and the traditional acoustic jazz vibes of the album closer 'Etka' serve as tasteful full stop to proceedings. But, on the whole, this album leans more heavily on recognisable structures and pleasing melodies than challenging free-form jazz aspects.
This is probably the most accessible of the many Soft Machine albums. Endless variations in personnel are usually not the healthiest thing to happen to any band and their wildly varying discography bears testament to that. On here, however, all the disparate elements gel remarkably well. Jenkins displays a wonderful versatility within his song-craft for different moods and structures and there is little of excess, at least by jazz-rock standards. The album is daring and experimental in some respects but captivates the listener from start to finish with its wonderful blend of styles and attention to melody. Progressive rock meets jazz-fusion on here in a very satisfying way and I'd urge any fan of those particular genres to check out this wonderful record.