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SOFT MACHINE - Fourth cover
3.38 | 29 ratings | 3 reviews
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Album · 1971

Filed under Fusion


A1 Teeth 9:12
A2 Kings And Queens 5:00
A3 Fletcher's Blemish 4:34
B1 Virtually Part 1 5:17
B2 Virtually Part 2 7:06
B3 Virtually Part 3 4:31
B4 Virtually Part 4 3:20

Total Time: 39:03


- Hugh Hopper /Bass
- Robert Wyatt /Drums
- Mike Ratledge /Organ, Piano
- Elton Dean /Saxophone [Alto, Saxello]

- Marc Charig /Cornet
- Roy Babbington /Double Bass
- Jimmy Hastings /Flute [Alto], Clarinet [Bass]
- Alan Skidmore /Saxophone [Tenor]
- Nick Evans /Trombone

About this release

CBS – S 64280 (UK)

Recorded Autumn, 1970 at Olympic Studios, London

Thanks to snobb for the updates


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Specialists/collaborators reviews

Fourth is the only Soft Machine's studio album, recorded with the same line-up as previous release (Third in this case). If Third was for band a revolutionary step from jazzy psychedelic pop/rock to complex jazz-rock territory, Fourth is excellent evolutionary example.

You will hardly find band's psychedelic pop/rock roots on Fourth, they are gone forever (both together with Wyatt vocals;dissatisfied with new direction he will leave band soon after Fourth will be released.Almost all albums compositions are written by Hopper, and band's sound moved towards more interplays between all musicians (instead of more solo oriented earlier works).

Music there is fully instrumental perfectly balanced complex jazz fusion with plenty of Dean's sax soloing (but still not extremely free form),Wyatt's drumming is possibly his ever best and all band sounds as real team of equal skilled musicians.Additional brass section and acoustic bassist add more texture to the sound.

Fourth is strong next step after excellent Third, step towards more jazz direction (for good and bad), and one of the best band's release ever. Possibly, only on this album you can find so good collective work of all musicians as one team and great balance between free form improvisation and structured compositions.

Members reviews

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.
Fourth - the Softs did go in for nice simple studio album titles early on in their career didn't they? - is infamously the last studio album from the Soft Machine to feature Robert Wyatt's playing, and the only one of his tenure in the band in which he is not permitted to sing (though he did have to fight tooth and nail to have Moon In June, the sole vocal track, included on Third). This under-use of Wyatt's talents is baffling to me - equally baffling is the way his drumming is sometimes buried in the mix - but what really gets to me is the fact that this is the first Soft Machine studio album I'd characterise as being less than absolutely consistently good.

Musically speaking, the tracks lie on a continuum from a slightly more jazzy take on the fusion sound of Third (as on Virtually) to an approach which takes on so much of jazz and incorporates so little rock that it's no longer really fusion, just jazz - as seen with Teeth. The difference in approach is most striking when you come to this album after listening to the absolutely blinding fusion rendition of Teeth on Grides, a live album recorded partway through the process of recording Fourth, so it's clear that quite late in the day a sudden change in direction has been mandated.

My guess is that some persons within the Machine were angling to get more recognition from the jazz establishment (having thoroughly won over the progressive rock crowd), but the end result is that material like Teeth ends up coming across as being less experimental or novel than material being released by people like Miles Davis, who at the time was approaching fusion from the jazz end (rather from the rock end as the Softs did). Either way, an album which is pleasant enough at times but it's far from the best rendition of the material available, and it's also an album which buries the Softs' virtues for the sake of an experiment in the band's sound that doesn't quite work. I'm not keen, myself.

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