Soft Machine is one of those bands that seem impossible to categorize — formally slippery, with a seemingly endless stream of reference points. As the band members moved further away from the psychedelic tropes that defined them early on in their career, their music become more impenetrable to the common listener. With the replacement of departed guitarist Kevin Ayers with saxophonist Elton Dean, they began to openly reject the pop format in favor of something more akin to what was being called “art-rock” in those days. The band began to stretch out their compositions, making room for longer and anomalous solos and improvisation — closer to the structures of avant-jazz that had been emerging in the previous decade. Soon enough, live and on record, the band began to remove vocals all together, wiping away most traces of their previous sound.
It is this period, arguably the most fertile of the their varied career, that we experience of Soft Machine on Live at the Henie Onstad Art Centre 1971. What separates the quartet — Michael Ratlidge, keys; Elton Dean, sax; Hugh Hopper, bass; Robert Wyatt, guitar — from the progressive-rock bands they’ve been unfairly associated with over the years is a lack of pretension and numinous ferocity to the songs that is unmatched among their grafted-on peers. It’s as if they realized they needed to react, non-verbally, against the diffident, synth-laden sounds of their classical-influenced rivals. The achievement is truly progressive: less interested in musical one-upmanship, more in creating work that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The two sets featured on this newly unearthed collection — transferred from the original tapes found in the basement of the Henie Onstad Art Centre in Oslo, Norway — reveal the band in the epoch of a startlingly original sound that would soon descend into rancid jazz-fusion. The drumming of Robert Wyatt (who would soon leave the band, drunkenly jump out a window, and go on to have a successful, wheelchair-bound solo career) is all energy, burrowing into insane polyrhythmic passages with the intensity of Keith Moon and the chops of Elvin Jones. Ratlidge and Dean both attack their instruments as if to cause them serious harm, making the compositions ebb and flow on various levels of intensity. At one moment, Wyatt can be playing an echo-filled drum solo, scattered and irregular, and moments later the song bursts forward with wailing screams from Ratlidge’s alto saxophone. All the while, Hopper’s bass manges to hold everything together, twisting itself through the complicated rhythms while forming the foundation for everything else to fall upon.
Although tracks are changed significantly, we hear bits and pieces of from their first three albums: classics such as “Noisette,” “Eammon Andrews,” and “Fletcher’s Blemish” are approached with caution having been thrown to the wind, in the best possible way. So it goes without saying that, even for fans of Soft Machine, it’s best to approach this release timidly. Most people would tell newbies to start with the more approachable early material, but hell to that. If you’re interested in Soft Machine, wouldn’t you want to be thrown right in? For that, there’s no better way to go than this disc, a crucial document of a band playing to its full potential.