Soft Machine’s sixth album Six is a hybrid of live and studio music. The first vinyl consists of live recordings made in London in October/November 1972 and the second of new studio tracks recorded at the end of the same year. On CD, the entire 76-minute set fits on a single disc.
Soft Machine has never been a very long-lived job for its musicians. Crew changes have occurred with almost every album and Six was no exception. The aggressively playing saxophonist Elton Dean was replaced on Six by the much softer sounding Karl Jenkins, whose instrumental range on the album includes oboe, baritone and soprano saxophones. Jenkins also plays keyboards backed by founding member Mike Ratledge. Innovative bassist Hugh Hopper is also still there, but Six was his last Soft Machine album.
The classically trained Jenkins, who previously played in Ian Carr’s jazz-rock band Nucleus, is a skilled player, but when it comes to proper jazz playing, compared to Dean, he is an elevator musician. With Jenkins, the whole sound of the band became a step, if not two, softer. Some of the live performances remain a bit toothless. For example, the stunning ’All White’ from Fifth is mostly politely pleasant when played live by Six and Jenkins on oboe. And Soft Machine certainly isn’t supposed to be polite and suave if you ask me.
The aforementioned ”All White” is the only old song Soft Machine plays on the live side of the album. All other material is new. Thus, the new softer and more melodic approach feels more natural. The best songs on the live side are the Ratledge compositions ”Gesolreut” and ”37½” which are surprisingly funky, but still contain some old Ratledge magic. Jenkins’ short live tracks are mainly a bit of a fiddly riffing in irregular time signatures.
The studio half, recorded in 14 days at Advision Studios, is a slightly more interesting experience than the live versions. The studio side begins with Jenkins’ hypnotically pulsating 11 minute ’The Soft Weed Factor’. The track is an exciting combination of art music minimalism and jazz-rock, but is perhaps a few minutes too long.
Next up is Ratledge’s six-minute ”Stanley Stamp’s Gibbon Album (for B.O.)”, which is the clearest departure from previous albums, being much more energetic than the other material and featuring some typically aggressive soloing from Ratledge. As a composition, however, the riffy song does not reach the level of Ratledge’s best work.
From the furious ”Stanley” we move on to Ratledge’s second composition, the nine-minute ”Chloe and the Pirates”, which is something else entirely. It’s a slightly sleepy and atmospheric mix of classical music and what later came to be described as ambient. At times the song even sounds like a kind of pre-New Age. Jenkins’ creamy sounding oboe works well in the piece.
The album ends with Hugh Hopper’s composition ”1983” which, with its tape loops, serves as a trailer for the man’s first solo album 1984, released a month after Six in March 1973. ”1983” is really a slightly softer and more digestible version of the rattle and clatter that 1984 offered.
Six is an album of transition. The wild experimentation and grating rawness of the earlier years is being left behind and after this Soft Machine, led by Jenkins, moved more and more in the direction of conventional jazz-rock. The playing was technically skilful, but mostly rather odourless and tasteless. Hugh Hopper didn’t want to stand by and watch this development, but defected from the band in a state of fatigue and outright disgust with Jenkins, soon realising that he couldn’t get along with him musically or otherwise. It is ironic that Jenkins had been chosen to join the band in the first place on Hopper’s suggestion.
My own feelings about Six are somewhat mixed. It’s a pretty good jazz-rock record, but not particularly impressive Soft Machine music.
Best songs: ’Gesolreut’, ’Stanley Stamp’s Gibbon Album (for B.O.)’, ’1983’.
Author: JANNE YLIRUUSI
- ”Fanfare” (Karl Jenkins) – 0:42
- ”All White” (Mike Ratledge) – 4:46
- ”Between” (Jenkins / Ratledge) – 2:24
- ”Riff I” (Jenkins) – 4:36
- ”37½” (Ratledge) – 6:51
- ”Gesolreut” (Ratledge) – 6:17
- ”E.P.V.” (Jenkins) – 2:47
- ”Lefty” (Soft Machine) – 4:56
- ”Stumble” (Jenkins) – 1:42
- ”5 From 13 (for Phil Seamen with Love & Thanks)” (John Marshall) – 5:15
- ”Riff II” (Jenkins) – 1:20
Total time: 76:25
Hugh Hopper: bass guitar, sound effects Karl Jenkins: oboe, baritone saxophone, soprano saxophone, electric piano, grand piano, celeste John Marshall: drums, percussion Mike Ratledge: organ, electric piano, grand piano, celeste
Producer: Soft Machine