There are some names that are synonymous with change. Soft Machine, a musical institution now celebrating its fiftieth year, is certainly one of them. Over that time some of the UK’s most respected musicians have passed through its doors. Innovators and beloved practitioners in their respective fields have all contributed to a continuum of stylistically diverse and distinctive music, regardless of the shifts in personnel and musical focus.
The current incarnation of Soft Machine has roots that extend deep into its past. Roy Babbington’s first connection with the group began in 1971, with John Marshall and John Etheridge starting their tenures in 1972 and 1975 respectively. Theo Travis, whose Canterbury Scene credentials include collaborations with Richard Sinclair and a stint working with ex-Softs co-founder Daevid Allen in Gong, formally took over on reeds, wind, and keyboards in 2006. It’s this blend of experience and peerless musicianship that makes Hidden Details a vital new chapter in this long-running story.
The yearning tenderness of ‘Heart Off Guard’ and the come-down reveries of ‘Broken Hill’ and ‘Drifting White’ showcase the more intimate aspects of Soft Machine’s personality while in contrast, ‘One Glove’ gives the more pugilistic side of John Etheridge’s playing an outing. The terse angularities of the title track and ‘Life on Bridges’ highlight a fearless disposition, as does the buzzsaw interplay heard during ‘Ground Lift’ and ‘Flight of the Jett’, both featuring Roy Babbington’s decisive interventions. The surging lyricism of ‘Fourteen Hour Dream’ flirts with an almost popish sensibility, underscoring the sense that this is a quartet that is fundamentally at ease with itself.
The return of what some older fans of the band have called ‘cosmic tinkles’ – the appearance of layers of cyclical electric piano motifs – is especially welcome. Their brief manifestation on ‘The Man Who Waved at Trains’ and Third-era, ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’, both stone-cold Mike Ratledge-composed classics, adds an extra spacey dimension to the overall sound. Travis’ use of looping technology with his flutes creates its own beguiling world and can be heard to powerful effect on the beautiful and enigmatic ‘Breathe’, where his hovering notes are underpinned by Marshall’s oblique yet atmospheric percussion.
In concert, their set list includes material from all parts of the band’s repertoire from 1970 onwards, but this is emphatically not a nostalgia act resting on its laurels. Hidden Details is very much the product of an active, contemporary sounding outfit striking out with its own agenda. Though informed by the past, the music here is neither weighed down nor beholden to it. Animated with the same ineffable and inquisitive spirit that has always made this group throughout its fifty years such a compelling experience, it’s good to have a new Soft Machine with us in 2018.
Hidden Details will be out on vinyl via Tonefloat on September 8. The audiophile 180 grams 2LP edition and contains six vinyl only bonus tracks on the fourth side. The album is available in both orange and blue vinyl, each in a run of 150 copies only and can be now from the Tonefloat Store. A orange/blue marbled edition in a run of 200 copies will be available exclusively from the Softs on their world tour.
(liner notes by Sid Smith with thanks)