SOFT MACHINE — Fourth (review)

SOFT MACHINE — Fourth album cover Album · 1971 · Fusion Buy this album from MMA partners
3.5/5 ·
ALotOfBottle
In October of 1970, Soft Machine started recording their fourth studio album. Their previous, two-disc release, Third , contained four long epics, each with its distinctive flavor. Robert Wyatt's piece, 'Moon In June', which was the only vocal track on the album, clearly showing his own musical vision, quite different from one of his band-mates. In fact, on his first solo album, The End of an Ear, Wyatt described himself as an "Out of work pop singer currently on drums with Soft Machine". The jazz-fusion oriented path Soft Machine had taken undoubtedly did not please his musical sensibilities. For their upcoming album, the group invited a double-bass player, Roy Babbington, who had previously played with Keith Tippet. A horn section, different from the one on Third, was also added, consisting of Alan Skidmore on tenor saxophone, Jimmy Hastings on alto flute and bass clarinet, Nick Evans on trombone, and Mark Charig on cornet. Fourth was released in early 1971 and was followed by Robert Wyatt's departure from the band.

Soft Machine's style on Fourth may appear as radical compared their first two works from 1968 and 1969, but is in fact merely a natural development they made from Third. The recruitment of a double-bass player, however, is a breakthrough and a turning point in the band's career. This might be interpreted as a definitive cut-off from rock. Yes, they probably still could rock out, but they were by no means a rock band anymore. The group creates a unique blend of elements of Miles Davis' mid-late sixties post-bop, free jazz of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Charles Mingus, and ambient music, that could be connected with pioneering bands such as Popol Vuh. Fourth also has a one-of-a-kind, inexplicable flavor that indicates that Soft Machine is a European outfit and differentiates them from contemporary groups from the United States. Similarly to Third, Fourth is largely focused on improvisation, therefore showcasing the instrumentalism of the musicians.

The newly-recruited horn section helps the band in reaching a certain amount of versatility in their sound. Although Elton Dean's alto saxophone and saxello is still dominant in the band's soundscapes, they are now enriched with sounds of a flute, a trombone, a cornet, and a tenor sax. Most often, these instruments play together, creating an interesting 'metal wall' of horn sounds, but solo parts on each of them are not uncommon. Mike Ratledge's keyboard rig is extended with a Hohner pianet, which the virtuoso finds particularly useful on parts, where strong rhythmical background is needed. His signature fuzzed-out Lowrey organ sound, which is one of the few common elements between Soft Machines debut and Fourth, plays an important role on his break-neck speed solos. With a double-bass player onboard, Hugh Hopper's contribution might seem limited, but the bassist's unique style and bass timbre is still crucial to Machine's sound. Robert Wyatt, who quite rightfully might not have been happy with a direction his band took, proves how much of a versatile drummer he was with his accurate and precise drumming.

Side one of Fourth is occupied by three tracks. The work starts with Ratledge's composition 'Teeth'. It starts out with a complex theme, which smoothly dissolves into a jam (which at parts reminds me of 'Hope For Happiness' from Soft Machine's debut). Then, we are approached by Hopper's piece 'Kings and Queens', which despite following a simple structure is one of the most memorable tracks from the album with a slightly gloomy, melancholic feel. Side one is closed with 'Fletcher's Blemish', a loud, atonal, horn-driven jam that lies just on the border of being classified as free-jazz and fusion. Side two comprises Hugh Hopper's four-part suite 'Virtually'. Part 1 is kept in a traditional jazz feel and is based on improvisation. Part 2 builds up tension, which leads to an atonal jam with Elton Dean's saxophone in the foreground. Part 3 opens with dissonant noises achieved by manipulating instruments with studio equipment on dreamy electronic ambient basis. Part 4 is basically an extension of Part 3 with smooth passages fading until the end of the album.

Fourth marks the end of Soft Machine's Canterbury scene years and begins what is known as group's 'classic' era as a jazz-fusion act. The music on the album might not be very compelling, at least in my book, but is a much-needed listen and is crucial to the development English jazz to come. A lot of the times, one will find their thoughts drifting far away from the music, which might be a testimony of its' well, soporific aspect. The album is more than decent in its own right, but is rather stodgy, insignificant, and unmemorable at the same time. No wonder why Robert Wyatt left Soft Machine. However, it is recommended to listen to the album and forge your own opinion.
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