A major part of the cog that is the Canterbury Scene sub-genre of prog rock, Soft Machine, named after the William S Burroughs novel, changed line-ups as frequently as their sound, moving from underground psychedelia increasingly towards a jazz rock sound.
While future Gong founder Daevid Allan had played with them prior to their debut album, the band had not featured a guitarist as soloist, and that changing of the guard would take place with 1975’s Bundles when Alan Holdsworth came on board, albeit briefly as it turned out.
Holdsworth has played with progressive rock act Tempest and the aforementioned Nucleus.
Holdsworth would jump ship to join Tony Willliam’s Lifetime, and was notably a member of prog rock’s last hurrah at supergroups with UK, subsequently becoming the darling of US shredders, with the likes of Eddie Van Halen and Frank Zappa singing his praises prior to his passing in 2017. Prior to joining Soft Machine, he had plated in progressive rock act Tempest, and was the final member from jazz rockers Nucleus to switch sides.
One by one, Karl Jenkins (oboe, piano, soprano sax), Roy Babbington (bass) and John Marshall (drums) had settled in previously. This left keyboard player Mike Ratledge the only original member by this stage, and his leadership role would be supplanted by Jenkins, and he himself leaving in 1976. Nucleus under a different name some might say.
Along with a new sound, and now a guitarist as featured performer, came a new record label with them signing to EMI’s Harvest. Cherry Red has released that album, in remastered and expanded format, along with a subsequent live album recorded after Holdsworth left, but more of that one later.
Publishing credits, and the vagaries of financial recompense from such, especially in the USA, meant you’d get payback on each song listed on a record. This meant those writing longer suites potentially lost out. To this end, music sometimes became artificially broken down, and where the actual composition altered that made sense, but as on Bundles, with Parts 1-5 of ‘Hazard Profile’ it was pure guess work to most listeners, similarly so even now when a computer screen tells you you’ve moved on a section. Thus, how to describe the almost side-long vinyl epic for those unaware?
Ominously opening with a building-up of keyboard holds and symphonic percussion, a drum roll introduces the sea of change due as Holdsworth’s guitar bounces melodiously joyful and loud in modal recourse, keyboards and bass more quietly echoing and playing with that sound. The bass then takes over the main theme, getting progressively jazzy, as Holdsworth solos progressively, taking in ludicrously long and fast scaled runs, constantly keeping one ear on the chords underneath so not alienating listeners. The accompanying musicians support ably, especially Marshall, then at just under 10 minutes a variation on the main riff returns, only to be followed by the gentle piano solo that marks ‘Hazard Profile Part Two (Toccatina)’, acoustic guitar joining half way through this briefer piece, organ and electric guitar enter the theme as it becomes the 33 second long ‘Part 3’, then a slow temperate blues rocking presides as the next section, albeit both are mainly window dressing, bridging the gaps.
With ‘Hazard Profile Part Five’ we shift back into high gear. A repetitive jazz rock riff circulates in the manner popularised by US fusion acts while synthesisers solo throughout in a more English prog tradition, heading towards an eventual riffed-up climax.
The overall effect is entertainingly easy on the ears, draws attention to itself for those focussing on solo sections, and best heard that way than dissecting individual sections. Whereas, the original second side of vinyl finished with the brief acoustic guitar piece ‘Gone Sailing’ that makes its singular statement quite succinctly.
Side 2, as was, begins with the title track before it too somehow merges into ‘Land Of The Bag Snake’. another jubilant guitar riffed melody leading the way, but with changing patterns, notably when it slowed down and Holdsworth guitar plucks the highest notes available on a fretboard exploratively, holding onto soaring notes between more chromatically inspired runs, moving onto a warmer organed section of bluesy notation of speedy extravagance that today’s shredder needs to take note on regarding the ability to still hold a tune. Comparisons to other bands during those two numbers, could be Camel for a bit, and Focus later, but truly it’s its own beast.
‘The Man Who Waved at Trains’ is pretty much another segue-way, percussion possibly evoking the train sound of its title, but rarely do the names given seem to reflect the sounds we here and offer visual imagery in our heads. It’s also the only number credited to Ratledge, most being penned by Jenkins, though others offering work too. ‘Peff’ gives no impression of what it might be about, but proves an endearing piece, that might suit accompaniment to some murder mystery movie – It includes sounds like horns, that may be Ratledge, or keyboard effects, and latterly what initially sounds like a violin being scrapped but is presumably guitar.
‘Four Gongs Two Drums’ is the one track that is what it says on the tin, being a short orchestrated percussive work, that sits comfortably within the greater work that is the album as a whole.
With ‘The Floating World’ Bundles reaches its climax. Keyboards stir and weave, in minimalist manner. It does so for over seven minutes, dreamily, slightly beckoning mystery but in no rush to reveal any such.
Bundles is best heard complete. It is accessible listening for most, irrespective of genre. A number of tracks spotlight Holdsworth considerable talents, but my own preference as player within the Soft Machine framework is John Etheridge, who I gather was recommended by his friend and predecessor in that role.
My own introduction to Etheridge as a guitarist was the brilliant Soft Machine album Alive & Well, Recorded In Paris, that also features Ric Sanders (Fairport Convention, Phenomena) on electric violin. I note that Cherry Red have a companion collection to this one under review, titled The Harvest Albums 1975-1978 – It is a 3CD remastered clamshell boxset edition and that collects live recording, along with Bundles under review here, and the comparable Softs, that was Etheridge’s own studio debut.
However, what this particular collection uniquely features is a show performed at Nottingham University on 11th October 1975 wherein Etheridge has replaced Holdsworth, and Soft Machine perform tracks from the Bundles album then out, along with early renditions of works that would appear on 1976’s Softs.
Disc Two begins with formal introductions for band members, possibly someone from the university’s entertainment committee, making it rather quaint, but launching into the last album’s title track both song and band come into their own. Marshall industriously works his kit, there is a clarity of sound, shorn of any studio overdubs and having learn how to make space for each other within the framework of the piece, and Etheridge while playing the tune’s themes immediately plays them under his own guise – His guitar, freer-flowing between notes than a need to hit them so precise, allowing both the natural timbre of his axe and his own left hand sustain to draw attention as required – On Alive & Well, Recorded In Paris there is a greater pronounced echo the over and the overall phrases played more elegantly, whereas there is more subtlety, and between all band members, save when they act as one fully committing to complicated runs, and as on vinyl it segues straight into ‘Land of the Bag Snake’, but owing more to the blues between light-fingers jazz guitar runs, while Babbington works the spaces between chords issued on keys. The overall feel of the pieces stirring, music for the head while not being shy to call out to the heart.
‘Out of Season’ is aired live prior to what will be the studio version on Softs, an album again mainly written by Jenkins. It is an elegant two-part questioning refrain, left unanswered, played pleadingly on guitar, more softly with counter melodies on keyboards. ‘The Man Who Waved At Trains’ follows quite naturally, and feels more profound a number here, Etheridge lays down chinking funky chords, the others get busy jazz hands, then vociferously extend and transpose the pre-existing melodies, as keyboards and guitars solo at various spirited turns. Here the number really finds its place.
‘JVH’ proves to be part music concrete, some bubbling keyboards that veer into Tangerine Dream territory until becoming one of those solo Moog wibbly wobbly explosions of sound that Keith Emerson and Jon Lord used to get off on live – Maybe it was a pre-requisite back in the early 70s, like going the loo when drummers soloed. That it’s actually mildly entertaining with the framework of the show is what freaks this listener. ‘The Floating World’ proves serene but much briefer here (I don’t think the more epic studio version could work live), leading the way into another future studio number with ‘Ban-Ban Caliban’ – Again we have guitar chords getting funky while bass bops about and keyboards define the overall sound, without getting complicated themselves, then some two and half minutes in they all pour on the steam, wigging-out on a jazzy-come-prog rock rave-up. Give it another couple of minutes and Etheridge is ready to lead the way towards the inner flame of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, before themes and lead personnel again alter. It’s a ride, and you won’t get travel sick.
‘Side Burn’ proves to be a very lengthy drum solo performed by Marshall. As with ‘JVH’ it works within the album as a whole, it is both jazz and classically orientated, and while impressive; dependent on one’s feelings about such instrumental sections, albeit less so than ‘JVH’, it might be a part you skip over on future plays. It’s followed by ‘Hazard Profile’ with all parts, and as with opening track ‘Bundles’ a more subtle interpretation for the most part, Etheridge’s fingers racing nimbly over the fretboard as ‘Part 1’ gets into its stride, ecstatic echoplexed notes exhaled between runs with the nearest comparison stylistically being Tommy Bolin over in the USA, who himself had then shorn jazz rocking for rocking out with The James Gang. ‘Part Two (Toccatina)’ flows in gentle contemplation, Etheridge’s guitar soaring in the few bars that are ‘Part Three’ only to switch to them ore ponderous downer blues prog of ‘Part Four’ with Marshall’s drums stretching out a little anxiously near the end waiting for things to get moving again with ‘Part Five’ where synths widdle about in that 70s manner, guitars scratch out ferociously racing funked-up chords, a bass bobbles, only for organ to take over the soling, the guitar roaring to be let loose but only truly taking the dominant sound of its major riffed theme as it climaxes to what sounds like a very civilised but appreciate crowd. This, we must assume was the main set over.
Presumably as encore, comes the then-unreleased ‘Song of Aeolus’, primarily a heart-wrenched guitar figure extended into brief solo, and finally the upbeat funky ‘Sign of Five’ to sign off with, wherein Etheridge gets to display his skills, raging up and down the fretboard, then playing a coy call and response between funky chord snippets with band slowing things down and jamming, it all seemingly breaking down before they collectively build up speed towards what you expect conclusion only for it to pick up again in funky jazzed refrain, with assorted solos – It’s a bit loose in places, but worth a listen, albeit not as often as others.
Soft Machine fans, or certainly aged music critics, tend to reflect their fondness for the band’s earlier work, more a mixture of the oddball and trad jazz to my mind. This period sees them change course more directly, though not with any aggressive force, as the addition of a six string instrument steers them (and possibly to some degree other UK bands like If where Gary Boyle was guitarist) towards the jazz fusion style of The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and to a lesser degree Return To Forever – And who could blame them as such bands would, for a period, sell-out stadiums in America. Despite which there remains that peculiar Englishness about them, alongside an air of affinity with the perceived culture of the times found in France and Italy.
It’s not highbrow or pretentious though. At least not for the most part. And yes, the guitarists can play more weirdly-named scales than most can name, but in the main, both CDs are pretty easy to get into, with enjoyable mood swings aplenty.
Alan Holdsworth would return to Soft Machine a few years later, for Land Of Cockayne, a pleasant but generally anonymous instrumental that probably fits the prog tag better than any other collection. The band itself would split, reform under assorted guises, and is now back in action with Etheridge and Marshall present (Babbington having only recently retired due to hand problems making it difficult to play) – Ironically, while presenting work from throughout the whole timeline and career of the band in this version, they are possibly closer in sound to the works presented on this collection and yet receiving the kind of critical appraisal they didn’t first time round.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
- Bundles: Remastered & Expanded Edition is released via Cherry Red Records on 26th August 2022.
- Official Website
Disc One: Bundles Remastered
- Hazard Profile Part One
- Hazard Profile Part Two (Toccatina)
- Hazard Profile Part 3.
- Hazard Profile Part 4.
- Hazard Profile Part Four
- Hazard Profile Part Five
- Gone Sailing
- Land of the Bag Snake
- The Man Who Waved at Trains 1
- Four Gongs Two Drums
- The Floating World
Disc Two – Live At Nottingham University 11th October 1975
- Land of the Bag Snake
- Out of Season
- The Man Who Waved at Trains
- The Floating World Ban-Ban Caliban
- Side Burn
- Hazard Profile Part One
- Hazard Profile Part Two (Toccatina)
- Hazard Profile Part Three
- Hazard Profile Part Four
- Hazard Profile Part Five
- Song of Aeolus
- Sign of Five