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Soft Machine - 2006 - "Floating World Live"

(74 min, MoonJune)

TRACK LIST:                    

1.  The Floating World 4:52
2.  Bundles 4:53
3.  Land of the Bag Snake 5:07
4.  Ealing Comedy 6:08
5.  The Man Who Waved at Trains 4:56
6.  Peff 6:29
7.  North Point 4:05
8.  Hazard Profile-I 4:49
9.  JSM 10:13
10. Riff III 8:42
11. Song of Aeolus 4:16
12. Endgame 6:39
13. Penny Hitch Coda 2:40


Mike Ratledge - organ, electric piano, synthesizers
Karl Jenkins - saxophone, oboe, recorder; pianos
Allan Holdsworth - guitar; violin
Roy Babbington - bass
John Marshall - drums

Prolusion. I believe the legendary English ensemble SOFT MACHINE doesn't require any particular introduction. "Floating World" is one of their numerous live albums, though unlike the others, it was recorded not during one of their concerts, but at the radio station, Radio Bremen in Germany (RBR Sessions?). The event took place on January 29, 1975, but the material saw the light of day 31 years later (nearly to the day), this last January. It's been remastered from the original master tapes. My rating on each of the band's albums (except compilations of any sort) can be seen here.

Analysis. It is no surprise that the content of this CD has much common ground with that of the band's eighth studio production "Bundles", which was brought out in the same year. It is no surprise either that "Floating World" impressed me less than the band's previous effort "Zaandam 2005". The point is that while I sincerely enjoy "Bundles", I don't find it to be a really essential Soft Machine album, unlike those from "II" to "V" for instance. (One may say it's just a matter of taste, but then this is one of those few things that no one will ever take away from anybody.) Furthermore, "Bundles" is a much more coherent and cohesive material than, say, its live cousin. The continuance of this output is unwarrantably long and is just far-fetched. The traditional concert tricks, known as solo numbers, occupy almost one third of the disc's space. JSM is John Marshall's drum solo, which would've been impressive had it been thrice as short as it is. It runs for more than 10 minutes, complex drum beats alternating with silent, clearly random sounds of cymbals and triangles, as well as moments of emptiness (thus leaving those of truth overboard). Roy Babbington's bass extravaganza, Ealing Comedy, isn't devoid of true artistic value, but is overextended as well. North Point, which is a kind of 'Mike Ratledge benefit performance', is just a set of synthesizer effects and is the most disappointing. The monotonous ambient-like electric piano passage that is brought to the fore of the title track by Karl Jenkins and runs all through the piece reduces almost to nothing the efforts of the other musicians to diversify it. Surely, much of the rest of the material is under control of Allan Holdsworth. (Jenkins, whose claims on the band's 'throne' first revealed themselves during the recording sessions for 1973's "Seven" and whose passion for blending New Age and melodic Jazz-Fusion began blossoming at the same time, was then forced to yield to the energy of this charismatic guitar player.) The total duration of the remaining eight tracks is perfect, approaching 50 minutes, and all of them are outstanding, at least in their own way (which depends on the listener's taste again), although they vary in the level of progressiveness. Bundles and Hazard Profile-I are mainly Allan's guitar histrionics on the repetitive Hard Rock riff-laden themes set by him himself. No guitar riffs on Land of the Bag Snake, Riff III and Endgame, yet all of them are still pronouncedly rocking Jazz-Fusion. There are still quite a fair number of thematic sections that serve as the foundations for Holdsworth's rapid solos on each, but Ratledge's keyboards and Babbington's bass aren't accidental participants in these shows, to say the least, but transform them into festivals of brilliant improvisation. The finale of Endgame is a bass-heavy atmospheric Space Fusion, which fluidly flows into Penny Hitch Coda and finds its logical continuation there. Both, however, are inferior to Bundles, Land of the Bag Snake and Riff III, which are the best among the previously described compositions. The other stunning tracks are The Man Who Waved at Trains, Peff and Song of Aeolus, the former two being hugely expanded, plus very successfully evolved versions of the eponymous short pieces from "Bundles". Only these three feature the entire set of instruments credited and are rich in parts for acoustic ones, e.g. piano, saxophone, oboe, recorder and violin. Each is an effervescent synthesis of classic Jazz-Fusion and quasi-symphonic Chamber Rock with plenty of essential theme and tempo alterations.

Conclusion. As is clear from the review, not everything on this CD meets my understanding or, to be more precise, my traditional concept of Soft Machine as of the band of unbounded progressive possibilities. Nonetheless "Floating World Live" is a lively document depicting the outfit at their first major turning point and, hence, one of the most important periods in their history. Recommended with said reservations.

VM: May 2, 2006

Related Links:

MoonJune Records
Musea Records


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