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Soft Machine and Related Projects

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During the transitional period when the Sixties became the Seventies (and music underwent mutations in every genre), a band emerged in England who blended traditional jazz with modern rock sensibilities, tainting this mixture with heavy abstract stylings. Among their many achievements, this band would assist in the emergence of the Canterbury Sound (Caravan, Egg, Hatfield & the North, and many more), which in turn would spawn the concept of prog rock there and in other countries (Italy becoming a particularly hot locale for fevered prog).

The members of this seminal band (which was Soft Machine, if you haven't already guessed) went on to pursue dynamic and influential careers, as solo artists and with other bands. Many careers began with Soft Machine: Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper, Mike Ratledge, Elton Dean, Kevin Ayers, and Daevid Allen.

Not forgotten, though, Soft Machine retains a steadfast and loyal following decades after the band's dissolution. Soft Machine releases continue to appear, sourced from live performances from those classic years and giving young audiences the opportunity to enjoy the music that started so many sonic balls rolling.

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MATCHING MOLE: March (CD on Cuneiform Records)

Matching Mole was a prog rock legend of momentous consequences. The band was assembled by drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt after his departure from the groundbreaking avant garde jazz ensemble Soft Machine in 1971.

This 2002 release offers 48 minutes recorded in concert in Europe from March of 1972. For this gig, the line-up of the band consisted of: Bill MacCormick (who would later join Phil Manzanera's 801) on bass, Dave MacRae (who would later work with Mike Westbrook) on electric piano, Phil Miller (who would go on to help form Hatfield & the North, and National Health) on guitar, and Robert Wyatt on drums and vocals.

Languid percussives rattle beneath a pastiche of delicate electric piano and smooth basslines. Scorching guitar wails with aristocratic delivery, lending fire and passion to the stately reserve of the tuneage.

Wyatt's voice is in prime form as his throat releases words and non-syllabic sounds that tremble with unearthly connotations. This non-lyrical application of voice is one of Wyatt's signature achievements, evolving scat to an entirely different level with breathy sighs and rapidly uttered noises that literally defy imagination.

This concert features a mixture of songs from the band's self-titled debut album and other places, among them a tasty rendition of Caravan's "Waterloo Lily".

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MATCHING MOLE: Smoke Signals (CD on Cuneiform Records)

This 51 minute CD contains live material from the band's European tour in the spring of 1972. The featured material is mostly derived from the band's second LP ("Little Red Record"), displaying renditions that differ greatly from the heavily produced studio versions.

For this release, band's line-up was: Robert Wyatt on drums and vocals, guitarist Phil Miller on guitar, bassist Bill MacCormick, and organist Dave Sinclair (from Caravan) who was later replaced by keyboardist Dave MacRae.

Strong songs and lazily melodic compositions are both represented on this CD. The powerful melodies are delivered with searing guitar, rumbling bass, hyperactive drums, and classically toned electric piano. While the softer pieces take a more somber sonic viewpoint, an undercurrent of explosive tension is still present, chittering to burst free but remaining confined.

Of particular interest: Matching Mole's debut (self-titled) album featured a cover painting by Alan Cracknell of two quaintly attired moles nose-to-nose as they peeked from their holes. "Smoke Signals" features a three-dimensional sculptural diorama recreation by Tom Recchion of this classic painting, which is photographed from numerous angles throughout the CD package, providing an entertaining glimpse at artwork amusingly made flesh.

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SOFT MACHINE: Backwards (CD on Cuneiform Records)

Comprising the awesome talents of Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper, Mike Ratledge, and Elton Dean, Soft Machine's sonic efforts were legendary during their day--and no less respected today. This 73 minute CD features unreleased recordings of classic Soft Machine tunes from 1968-70, including two versions of "Facelift", two versions of "Moon in June", a single version of "Esther's Nose Job" and a single version of "Hibou Anemone and Bear".

Wyatt's driving percussion propels the stately mass of Hopper's rumbling bass, Ratledge's spacious electric organ, and Dean's wailing saxophone. The drums are thoroughly natural, needing no electronic enhancement to dazzle the audience. The nimble-fingered basslines inject a molten temperament to the cool, sizzling with harsh undercurrents. Organ sweeps slide like astounding specters across ice, lilting and moody with the dronish expressions. While the passionate horns (for trombone and trumpet are featured with the sax) fill the air with their regal cry, resounding like clouds exploding into a brass summoning of elder forces.

One must also not overlook the vocal stylings of Robert Wyatt, who explores a wealth of enticing non-wordage in lieu of actual lyrics. His mouthings are uncanny, full of bubbling non-verbal utterances that seem to possess lives of their own long after leaving his mouth. (Okay--there are also conventional lyrics, gurgling silky tones that delineate abstract notions.) Whether being articulate or experimental, though, Wyatt's voice demonstrates a resonance that is wholly unique and pleasantly dreamy.

This surging music defines the bridge between free form jazz and avant garde sensibilities, terms that may sound "old school" in the 21st Century, but this is the music that made possible eighty percent of whatever you listen to (regardless of your musical tastes).

Meanwhile, Soft Machine fanatics will helplessly swoon over the incredibly epic 21 minute "demo" version of "Moon in June", the first half featuring all instruments performed by Wyatt, slipping into a smoldering stretch performed by the four-piece band. As if that wasn't enough, two tracks are included from "the dramatically small recorded legacy of Soft Machine's septet line-up", which added Lyn Dobson, Nick Evans and Marc Charig to the Wyatt/Hopper/Ratledge/Dean incarnation of the band. Informative liner notes detail the history of these rarities, revealing how they were unearthed and salvaged more than three decades after their creation.

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Go here to read an interview with Hugh Hopper and see an expansive column covering many of his solo releases. While another Hopper review can be found here.

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