Album Review: Soft Machine Legacy – Burden of Proof

Readers of rock history will occasionally stumble across references to the “Canterbury scene,” a construct of music journalists that – in real terms – hardly happened at all. But the term is more legitimate than the “Bosstown sound,” a whole-cloth 60s concoction of the MGM record label that trumpeted such long-forgotten acts as The Beacon Street Union and Ultimate Spinach (no, really). In fact a couple – but only a couple – of bands rose out of the purported scene based in the southern England city of Canterbury. A group that never recorded calling itself The Wilde Flowers eventually gave birth to Caravan and Soft Machine. And while neither of those bands set the charts alight (especially not in the USA) both produced fine and highly-regarded bodies of work. (I’ll cover a new-ish Caravan live release soon here on the blog.)

Soft Machine was founded by bassist/guitarist Kevin Ayers (though he’d soon depart) along with Robert Wyatt on drums, organist Mike Ratledge and guitarist Daevid Allen (soon to depart for Gong). The group soon added Hugh Hopper on bass. The high-water mark of Soft Machine’s career was the double-LP Third in 1970, but all of their albums are well worth investigating. Soft Machine was that rare animal: a jazz group that stuck to their stylistic guns yet enjoyed (underground) popularity among the rock cognoscenti. They were often invited to play at rock-oriented festivals (mostly on the Continent) and likely served as a sort of jazz “gateway drug” for rock fans.

The band effectively went inactive by the mid 1970s, but various reunions and semi-reunions have taken place in the ensuing thirty-five-plus years. In the 21st century, an aggregation including Hopper and guitarist Allan Holdsworth toured the music of Soft Machine, and a few years later, that group (minus Holdsworth) named itself Soft Machine Legacy. Though the 2013 lineup of the band includes no original Soft Machine members (Hopper passed away in 2009), three of the four were in the original band at various points: John Etheridge (guitar 1975-1978), Roy Babbington (bass 1973-1976) and John Marshall (drums 1971-1984, replacing Wyatt). The three are joined by Theo Travis on tenor sax, flute and Fender Rhodes; Travis is perhaps best known to rock fans as a collaborator with Steven Wilson, though his musical pedigree is long and impressive.

And it’s Travis’ Rhodes work that kicks off the new album Burden of Proof; the title track features sparkling, gurgling prepared keyboards lines leading into a swinging tune anchored by Babbington’s bass and Marshall’s light touch on the drums. Overdubbed horns from Travis give the song a flavor that will be warmly familiar to fans of the Softs’ earlier work.

These thirteen wordless tunes make their points through subtle interplay between the four players; Etheridge’s guitar weaves in and out of the knotty foundation his band mates lay down. Even when one player is ostensibly taking a spotlight solo, the remaining three are doing musical things that are never short of interesting.

Soft Machine Legacy are seemingly unconcerned with “updating” their sound for the 21st century: no hip-hop beats or dubstep textures here. But neither are they slaves to the past. While “Voyage Beyond Seven” will please lovers of hard bop and west coast jazz alike, Etheridge’s guitar work (in particular) has feel not unlike Robert Fripp‘s work on early King Crimson albums (up through, say, Islands). Travis’ ghostly flute work makes the Crimson connection even more pronounced.

“Kitto” is an Etheridge solo number, and “Pie Chart” has a sound that evokes memories of Rat Pack-era Las Vegas, giving way to some skronky interplay between Travis (on sax) and Etheridge (on distorted lead guitar). “JSP” is Marshall’s turn to showcase his playing without his bandmates; little happens in the piece, but his skills are shown to great effect pretty much everywhere else on Burden of Proof.

The band contrasts softer sounds (the gentle “Kings and Queens”) with knotty/spacey avant stylings (“Fallout”) throughout the record; they mix very short pieces (“Going Somewhere Canorous?”) with moody, contemplative pieces that take their time to develop (“Black and Crimson,” which wouldn’t be out of place on any number of the best fusion albums of the early 70s).

Wailing, free-form sax is set against a manic Marshall drum solo in thrilling fashion on “The Brief.” And the band takes a decided turn in a rock(!) direction on the chugging “Pump Room,” punctuating the rock riffage with deft saxophone lines in lockstep with bass and drums. An album highlight, “Green Cubes” is an impressionistic piece that start out airy and ends up in Sonny Sharrock territory. The record wraps with “They Landed on a Hill,” in which Travis’ Rhodes again goes all dreamy; the static piece is evocative of Brian Eno‘s ambient 1970s work.

Original members or no, with their latest album, Soft Machine legacy have clearly held up their end of the bargain in providing Burden of Proof.

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