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The Many Faces of Soft Machine

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As any aficionado of prog rock will tell you, Soft Machine not only created a new form of combining jazz and rock, the band gave birth to a new genre of music--and has continued to generate new bands long after their dissolution. Recent years have seen several classic Soft Machine concerts surface as new CDs, and (considering that each of the band's gigs delivered fresh life to their songs) here are a few more of those tasty releases.

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SOFT MACHINE: Middle Earth Masters (CD on Cuneiform Records)

This release from 2006 features 65 minutes of experimental rock.

The band's line-up here is: Kevin Ayers on guitar, bass and vocals, Mike Ratledge on organ, and Robert Wyatt on drums and vocals.

This majority of this music was recorded live at Covent Garden, in London on September 16, 1967. Two tracks are from the band's performance at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, London in May 1968, while one track is from an unknown location circa autumn 1967.

This release offers a side of the band that most fans rarely get to hear: the very early period featuring lyrical vocals supporting folksy rock tunes. Lurking at the edges are the band's experimental tendencies.

Ayers' vocals are faint and whimsical, generating a carefree charm that he would later take with him into his solo career. His guitarwork is choppy yet fluid, a precursor of psychedelic rock.

Meanwhile, Wyatt's vocal stylings are less conventional, exploring tonal expressions that stretch and bend notes with inventive whimsy. He uses words as a springboard for pingponging vocal calisthenics that are dazzling to behold.

The percussion is hyperactive and thoroughly unpredictable. Rhythms are created, then crumpled into twisted structures of almost simultaneous tempos that phase in and out of syncopation.

Ratledge's organ is forced to produce an amazing plethora of slithery chords and expansive sweeps that seem to stretch far beyond the instrument's key pad. His fingers flash to and fro, generating lavish riffs that oscillate with tenor passion. Feedback is utilized as an individual instrument of vibrant scope.

In Ayers' hands, the basslines thunder and buzz like enormous creatures of savagery.

Overall, a surprising dose of tuneage guaranteed to surprise fans and delight those who seek sonic strangeness.

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SOFT MACHINE: Grides (CD & DVD on Cuneiform Records)

Released in 2006, this release offers a CD with 79 minutes of excellent music recorded live at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on October 25, 1970. Also included is a DVD featuring 21 minutes of live music recorded on March 23, 1971 at Radio Bremen's TV Studio in Bremen, Germany.

The band line-up for these performances was: Elton Dean on saxophone, saxello, and electric piano, Hugh Hopper on bass, Mike Ratledge on electric piano and organ, and Robert Wyatt on drums and voice.

This release displays the band in absolute top form, with Ratledge's haunting keyboards wailing like an enthusiastic child, Wyatt's emphatic drumming, Hopper's thunderous bass, and Dean's jovially mournful horns. Not to forget Wyatt's agile vocal stylings (which sadly only show up on the DVD).

The keyboards waft with surging vigor, defining melodies with their signature prog rock timbre. Riffs sway and swim with studied abandon. The keys generate delicious notes with startling velocity.

The percussion is nimble and playfully variable, constantly pursuing rhythms of the highest allure. The tempos fairly stumble upon each other in a manner that fuses each beat into a fluid locomotion.

The basslines alternate between dependable sturdiness and rasping earth-shattering scope. Frequently the bass approximates a lead guitar disposition as riffs flow with remarkably sinuous delivery.

The horns are endearing and romantic, striving for altitudes of incredible emotion. The melodies are dizzying in their crisp wonder as the saxophone scrapes the ceiling of heaven with its fervent charm.

Included on the CD are lively performances of several Soft Machine classics, including "Facelift", "Virtually", "Out-Bloody-Rageous", "Esther's Nose Job", and "Slightly All the Time".

The DVD footage shows the band playing onstage with a psychedelic backdrop. There's a tasty Wyatt vocal-noise riff shown in close-up double exposed with psychedelic visuals. The performance is slippery, primal progrock with lots of sliding horns and fluid keys.

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SOFT MACHINE: Floating World Live (CD on MoonJune Records)

This release from 2006 features 74 minutes of superb music recorded live at the Post-Aula in Bremem-Horn, Germany, on January 29, 1975 by Radio Bremen.

The band line-up for this concert was: Mike Ratledge on Lowery organ, electric piano, and synthesizers, Karl Jenkins on oboe, saxophone, recorder, and electric and acoustic piano, John Marshall on drums and percussion, Allan Holdsworth on guitar and bass, and Roy Babbington on bass.

Representing a later period of the band, this music is less experimental, more steeped in conventional delivery. The tunes are soothingly melodic and fashioned with a twinkling fashion that is almost pastoral in disposition.

The percussion is elaborate and diverse, evocative of landscapes seething with a fusion dynamic. Searing guitar provides a passionate driving force that swerves between the other instruments with sinuous grace. Notes spill forth with lightning velocity, generating fiery riffs of great verve. The basslines are very liquid, oozing like an ocean of lustrous honey. The keyboards are slippery and seemingly omnipresent, sparkling between the notes like a solar waterfall of warmth. The oboe and recorder trill with fanciful demeanor, delivering idyllic interludes amid the frantic overdrive exhibited by most of the tuneage. Meanwhile, the saxophone provides a sultry voice reminiscent of cool jazz cafes.

While this music's tone is generally one of energetic fusion, there are instances of playful minimalism, harkening back to the band's experimental roots, often presented with a pleasant sense of humorous joy. The band slides from high dynamic mode into passages of dreamy ether with comfortable ease. One track is a ten minute drum solo that will leave your head spinning with its dazzling mirth.

Not just a piece of history, this music stands as a durable dose of satisfying progressive rock.

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NDIO:Airback (CD on Cuneiform Records)

This release from 2005 features 53 minutes of modern jazz.

NDIO (which stands for Never Dance in Orange) is: Frank van der Kooij on saxophones and clarinet, Hugh Hopper on bass, Pieter Bast on drums, Niels Brouwer on guitars, Paul Maassen on piano and Hammond organ, Robert Jarvis on trombone, and Michel Banabila on samples.

While saxophones strive to be the core lead sound in this music, the rest of the instruments unashamedly manage to match each other in force and fervor.

The guitar blazes with sedate fury, displaying a tasty restraint that does little to daunt it's appeal.

Hopper's bassline growl with monstrous authority, but never swamp the other sounds, finding excellent manners to fuse with the mesh as if acting to cement everything into a driving gestalt.

The percussion is stoic, preferring to apply itself as an equal partner rather than goading the melodies.

Piano provides a cerebral touch, conjuring classical music halls with its majestic patter. Organ sweeps attribute the tunes with a more modern flair, as nimble-fingered chords evoke a fusion edge.

With this release, van der Kooij (who has been recording with Hopper for over 16 years) shows his independent plumage, generating tunes that merge jazz and classical influences in a thrilling progressive milieu.

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