It's been said that Soft Machine were the most important of the various bands who emerged from the Canterbury scene, but I've not heard enough by them to judge. I know that I've struggled with Gong, whose driving force, Daevid Allen, was a founder member of Soft Machine, but nothing I've heard thus far was quite so experimental. However, they've not done a heck of a lot lately, a string of eleven albums between 1968 and 1981 followed by only one until now, 2018's Hidden Details.
Therefore I was keen to take a listen to this, featuring a few long term members, one for the final time. Drummer John Marshall, who had four separate stints with the band, including the majority of the seventies and the entire period since their reformation in 2015, passed away in 2023, so this is his last contribution to their discography. John Etheridge is still with us but, even though he was in the band in the late seventies and in the eighties, his current run is his longest. Roy Babbington retired in 2020 but returns here to play bass on a couple of tracks, including a memorable showing on Penny Hitch.
That's the second track here and it's more substantial than Careless Eyes before it, that being an agreeable interplay of flutes and electric guitars. This one mixes bass, drums and keyboards, then adds a memorable saxophone that makes it feel complete. An electric guitar solo from Etheridge in the second half is too much for a while, noodling over a textured backdrop rather than merging with it, like Theo Travis's sax does. It works better at the end of the track, but it takes time to get there, as indeed it does on the following track, Other Doors.
As a result, this may play a lot better to jazz fans than rock fans, though the album as a whole fits well between the two. I was expecting prog rock but this is closer to jazz fusion. Whichever it may count as, it's also relatively accessible. Careless Eyes starts out highly accessible, as an incredibly easy song to listen to, and then it gets progressively jazzier as if it's moving up a scale. We might not realise we're listening to jazz until we get to Crooked Usage, when the drums ditch a pretense of playing rhythm and start to jam as a lead instrument and the bass goes off on runs everywhere. However, it's still not wildly out there, the album waiting until Fell to Earth to really challenge.
That's ten tracks into thirteen and it's a prowler from the outset, with rumbling guitar and bass, a teasing set of cymbals and a dangerous saxophone. That saxophone has been our friend for many tracks thus far, always courteous and helpful enough to walk old ladies across the road. It shows up late in Crooked Usage and is almost a voice of reason there, bringing the other instruments back into line. Here, it's a different beast entirely, threatening anyone within range. The piece almost ends a minute in, as if the band are ready to wrap things up with a flourish, but it continues on and only gets more frantic as it does so.
I can easily see unwary listeners liking this album immediately because it's just so nice but getting to Crooked Usage and wondering what they signed up for. More experienced prog fans would be a lot more knowledgeable but still run through the same scenario with Fell to Earth being the point at which they question. Either way, they'll probably skip back to track one and listen through again with very different ears. I take that as a good thing because it doesn't throw us in at the deep end and hope we can swim. It gives us lessons for a while and then reveals that we're over the Mariana Trench. Well, maybe not quite that deep but notably deeper than we were.
There are interesting touches outside those two tracks. Joy of a Toy is one for two reasons. One is that it starts out as if it's going to be a jazz improvisation on Heartbreak Hotel. Those are easy to recognise chords! It doesn't go there, but where it goes instead includes what seems to be a weird effect for Etheridge's guitar that sounds rather like it's being used to tune a radio. I'm not sure it works but it's certainly worth the attempt. Maybe Never features plenty of chirpy keyboards, as if this piece was travelling to the same deep space places that the android in Glass Hammer's Arise did last year.
The other note that I'd throw out is that I really enjoyed the bass on this album. Jazz is a genre in which every instrument can play lead and, well, is rather expected to. What's interesting is that I'd call out both bassists: long term member Babbington as a guest on Penny Hitch and especially on Now! is the Time, where the interaction between guitar and bass the entire purpose for this piece, but also Freddy Baker, his replacement, especially on The Stars Apart.
And so this doesn't start out like it's going to be an interesting album, with the easy listening that comprises Careless Eyes, but it does get there and it stays there, all the way to the final track that may well be the best on the album. That's Back in Season and it's also the longest of them at seven minutes, except for Crooked Usage at eight and a half. I think it's because because once we realise that we've moved from chilling to asking questions, we're engaged enough to want to figure out a firm answer or three. Where this fits within Soft Machine's back catalogue, I couldn't tell you, but it's much more accessible and much more interesting to me than Gong.