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Reviewers: Don Mather, Tony Augarde, Dick Stafford, John Eyles, Robert Gibson, Ian Lace, Colin Clarke, Jack Ashby

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Soft Machine Legacy

Moonjune MJR 008







1. Kite Runner
2. Ratlift
3. Twelve Twelve
4. F & I
5. Fresh Brew
6. New Day
7. Fur Edge
8. Theta Meter
9. Grape Hound
10. Strange Comforts
Elton Dean – Alto sax, saxello, Fender Rhodes, gong
John Etheridge – Electric guitar
Hugh Hopper – Electric bass
John Marshall – Drums, percussion

Soft Machine is a British band with a venerable history. Originating in the 1960s at a school in Canterbury, its members at various times included Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Karl Jenkins, Allan Holdsworth, and the four people who got together for this reunion in 2005. It was a historic occasion, because the album was Elton Dean’s last studio recording before he died in February 2006. I remember another historic occasion, in 1970, when Soft Machine was the first-ever jazz group to play at one of the Promenade Concerts at the Albert Hall. Other events have made the Softs legendary – like the fact that they took their band name from William Burroughs’ term for the human body, and Reg Dwight borrowed Elton Dean’s first name for his pseudonym, Elton John.

Things have certainly changed over the years and, since Soft Machine disbanded, Dean and Hopper have kept the flag flying with such projects as Soft Heap and Soft Bounds. Now we have Soft Machine Legacy – a quartet which defies expectations by being much more than a group playing the band’s old hits. The first track – Kite Runner – sounds like the powerful jazz-rock of old but Ratlift is a free-form piece which starts with an explosive drum solo from the excellent John Marshall. Elton Dean plays keyboards here and John Etheridge’s guitar is a powerful voice which makes him sound like the leader of the band. In fact Etheridge dominates many tracks with his outspokenly virtuosic playing.

The guitarist introduces Twelve Twelve with some meditative single-string work. Elton Dean joins in on saxello for a complex melody whose twists and turns are hard to anticipate. Elton’s solo takes flight with oriental-sounding arabesques, while John Marshall thrashes the drums with unstoppable impetus. Etheridge’s guitar solo is more down-to-earth, leaning on the solid basis laid down by bass and drums. F & I is an improvised duet between Elton on Fender Rhodes and Etheridge’s free-flowing guitar. The free atmosphere continues with Fresh Brew, a tribute to Miles Davis on which Elton’s saxello produces an ethereal sound rather like Miles’s trumpet.

New Day brings us back to the more familiar Softs’ style, with dynamic blowing from Dean and masterful guitar from Etheridge. Fur Edge is frankly a bit of a mess, as Elton’s sax skitters around above Marshall’s busy drumming. Theta Meter similarly sounds incoherent and directionless. However, Grape Hound has more substance, with Hugh Hopper’s sturdy bass laying down a guttural beat. The final Strange Comforts opens with surprisingly gentle guitar, and it stays in that lyrical vein – a comparatively placid track after what has gone before.

This album shows Soft Machine still experimenting adventurously – though sometimes very noisily! Theo Travis has taken Elton Dean’s place in the group. We haven’t heard the last of Soft Machine yet.

Tony Augarde


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