I guess for most fans of the band any Soft Machine record is better than none. Over the years members and styles have changed frequently but the jazz and improvisational base has been constant. The back line of the Legacy line up goes furthest back with long serving member and former roadie Hugh Hopper joined by John Marshall whilst the relative new boys, John Etheridge and Theo Travis provide guitar and sax. Talent-wise this is as good a line up as any (the irreplaceable Elton Dean would be proud of Travis' work on here) so you might expect there to be something special. And you won't be disappointed; there is some killer material on here and I mean it literally – read on!
Hopper wrote the opener "Footloose" which features a rather shuffling interplay between drums and sax over a motoring bass with some aggressive scaling and stabbing guitar injections. In "The Steamer" which follows, we get more of a composed outing from Travis with a rakish sax conjuring an old blues-time ride. Some great atonal guitar gives it an edge. A band effort follows in "The Big Man", a chugging jeep of a track with a powerful rhythm and wild sax which develops into quite a melodic motif before being joined by Etheridge's understated guitar.
The ghost of Mike Ratledge figures in his lent composition, "Chloe and the Pirates". This a leisurely stroll compared to the previous piece with Travis playing some of his most evocative mellow sax lines on the album. John Etheridge, surely one of the world's most under-appreciated guitarists plays his part too in a sortie of tension and release guitar. His own composition "In the Back Room" follows with its typically Canterburyesque, pleasant jittery metres and florid sax and guitar workings.
"The Last Day" is another of Theo's pieces, this time showing off his talents as a flautist in this highly choreographical, Stravinsky like, flight of fancy. I like the way the theme unravels as it is attacked by scraping, mangled guitar chords. Track seven, "Firefly" I think must be Hopper and Marshall's idea of a wind-up on the 'new kids' as the wind and guitar parts are so complicated it must have nearly killed poor old John and Theo to play it! The murderous time signatures (delivered with some stellar drumming from Marshall) and complex chord progressions left me visualising Travis lying in a heap in the corner desperately trying to force another bit of breath out to finish his flute part!
"So English" seems to take us back to the weird and wonderful world of Soft Machine 3, a classic, much loved album which sadly I have never been able to grasp despite many re-attempts over the years as my tastes have changed. I'm equally lost on this one too! The amusing play on words "Dave Acto" doesn't get me back to much firmer territory either as the instruments are played madly at different tempos and times. It does however gell into something I can recognise after a couple of minutes though and I stick my head back out warily from under the blanket to a counterpoint of honking saxes. The final song, "Anything to Anywhere" brings a rock riff into play and leads the album into a smooth close out overshot by Etheridge's McLaughlin—like guitar lines and a radio-friendly touch of light sax.
Overall this a vibrant, adventurous fusion and free form jazz outing; it stands up well to the band's illustrious history and ought to be on any Soft fan's shopping list.
2. The Steamer
3. The Big Man
4. Chloe and the Pirates
5. In the back room
6. The last day
8. So English
9. Dave Acto
10. Anything to anywhere