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Soft Machine - Live in Paris

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Artist: Soft Machine

Album: Live in Paris

Label: Cuneiform

Review date: Jul. 1, 2004

Finally, post-Robert Wyatt Soft Machine gets a complete concert release. Cuneiform, whose four previous Soft Machine discs have been superb, chose a 1972 Paris concert for their next installment, and it is revelatory.

Soft Machine, at the time of this performance consisting of Mike Ratledge, Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper and John Marshall, had distanced themselves from the playful psychedelia of their late 1960s output, and it has often been whispered that Robert Wyatt’s 1971 departure sealed the group’s fate. Live in Paris shows how unfair those statements were.

True, the Canterbury whimsy of Volume II has basically vanished, but that album also sported its own brand of virtuosity, existing comfortably between the Wildeflowers rock of Volume I and the extended modal workouts of Third. The 1972 incarnation maintains a fanatical urge to explore, convincingly juxtaposing freedom and structure in a jazzier framework.

The material for this double-disc is drawn from Third and Fifth, two albums whose compositions beg for the Coltranesque mode-play so well executed by Dean, Hopper and Ratledge. Dean proves himself quite the keys man here, engaging Ratledge in a frenetic electric piano dialogue to open “Facelift.” When Ratledge launches into one of his typically distorted organ solos, as he does throughout the show, Dean comps with incredible rhythmic flare and harmonic inventiveness. The communication between bassist and drummer often borders on the telepathic; Hopper provides the perfect support for Marshall’s drumming, which is much more overtly jazz-inflected and timbrally expansive than Wyatt’s (he was in Nucleus, after all). His approach relies heavily on space and syncopation, rendering this quartet’s sound much more stripped down than that of the “classic” quartet. The Nucleus legacy is especially evident on “All White” and “Slightly All the Time,” where Hopper and Ratledge invoke electric Miles through discrete and tasteful use of the wa-wa pedal.

The audience is appropriately appreciative throughout, erupting into volcanic enthusiasm after Marshall’s scorching “L.B.O” solo, and the monaural sound is exemplary. Not only is this the best representation of this phase of Soft Machine, it is one of their finest recordings to have emerged so far. By presenting a full concert, Cuneiform has shown that this oft-maligned band’s sound is a mutation rather than a departure, an extremely important discovery for fans and detractors alike.

By Marc Medwin

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Find out more about Cuneiform

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