The idea of strolling to your local venue to see the Soft Machine is something I would have considered preposterous when I first heard the ‘Third’ album back in 1985. Yet here I was seeing the band for the third time in 18 months, promoting their new album ‘Hidden Details’ to a sell-out audience at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge.
‘Hidden Details’ has been in my possession since September and rarely far from my CD player since. Yet I’ve been waiting for the time, space and context to include a review of it on the Facelift blog. The impetus has finally come from this rousing gig, epitomising a surprisingly fresh direction for the band. Whilst albums from the Soft Machine Legacy, the name under which this outfit toured and recorded as part of an evolving dynasty from previous line-ups involving Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper , were worthy enough, recent tours had given a sense that this band was tightening up its identity with careful selection of archive tracks from ‘Third’ through to ‘Bundles’ to suit its melodic motifs and rocky grooves. ‘Hidden Details’ adds the final pieces of the jigsaw through the authoring of a cohesive set of new tunes. My own feeling on hearing ‘Hidden Details’ for the first time, was that the band almost felt a sense of responsibility to live up to their newly shorn name. Chatting to saxophonist Theo Travis at the gig, the only member of the band who doesn’t hail from band line-ups in the early to mid Seventies, he echoed similar sentiments.
The opening bars of the eponymous title track which opens both the album and live sets are quite startling: the dissonant angular guitar theme with which John Etheridge launches affairs is untypical of the Soft Machine from any of its eras and as such is an almost a statement in itself – this rumbustious track, powered by Roy Babbington’s growling fuzz bass and John Marshall’s omnipresent drumming makes it clear that this is not a band to rest on safe ground. If Travis sets his stall out for the album with a rousing tenor solo, it is if anything surpassed by the Frippian high notes at the end of Etheridge’s finishing shot.
But this is just for starters. With a set list which includes at least half a dozen tracks played from ‘Hidden Details’, the majority of which add rather than detract from the overall impact, it’s clear that certain elements from the previous repertoire had to give, and the chief casualty appears to be some of Etheridge’s stately guitar themes from ‘Softs’. And so convention is swiftly discarded, with even ‘Life on Bridges’ with its memorable anthemic melody played in triplicate in unison by guitar, sax and bass, dissolving into a ‘Fletcher’s Blemish’-like mess. Whilst not played live, there are further sonically uncompromising tracks on the album such as ‘Ground Lift’ and ‘Flight of the Jett’ which confirms that the band are not content to hide behind an undoubted gift to craft beautifully accessible melodies.
That said, there remain instantly identifiable Etheridge tunes, ‘Heart Off Guard’, with wonderful Travis soprano soloing over acoustic guitar; whilst the more electric ‘Broken Hill’, aired memorably live, contains perhaps the most evocative Etheridge guitar theme of the album. Elsewhere, ‘One Glove’ sits somewhere between the heavy rock grooves of ‘Seven’ and various post-Softs compositions from Hugh Hopper, with strutting guitar and sax to add. This one went down a storm live with Roy Babbington in his element.
Three tracks which the band were already playing in their repertoire prior to ‘Hidden Details’ are included on the album and are now staple parts of the set list– all are distant nods to the past, with ‘The Man Who Waved At Trains’ one of many tracks to benefit from Travis’ dexterous flute, plus two parts of ‘Out-bloody-rageous’, the latter introduced through an innovative triggering of samples and effects from the keyboard of Theo Travis; followed by the track’s main theme duetted by guitar and sax – Travis’ solo is a joyous romp through a much loved Softs ‘standard’.
The live set is completed by other notable pieces carefully picked from the discography – the funky ‘Gesolreut’, a highlight from their gig in Manchester a year ago, ‘Chloe and the Pirates’, which started a much-deserved encore, Hugh Hopper’s ‘Kings and Queens’, beautifully crafted, and a medley including ‘Tarabos’ and the inevitable set ender ‘Hazard Profile’. The latter two were separated by a quite unexpected, lengthy and almost angry drum solo from John Marshall, quite remarkable in its dexterity, almost a raging against the years.
It was interesting seeing the band in a small provincial environment, subtly different from the more metropolitan audience I saw the band last play to where the audience was consistently appreciative throughout, but never quite lost their cool. The Trades Club audience are a fickle lot, took a while to warm up and then seemed to be colossally won over by the end with a noisy primal adulation which I think took the band a bit by surprise. John Etheridge is a charming, self-effacing, slightly mischievous front man, taking time between each tracks to ingratiate himself gently with the audience – with lovely references to both how tonight contrasted with the band’s seamless, non-verbal interactions in the Seventies, (Mike Ratledge was outed as only ever having spoken to an audience once, when an entire rig went down!); or somewhat closer to home relating the story of the band’s extended trip that day from Scotland to the night’s accommodation, including an only too familiar stakeout close to the venue on a single track road where two vehicles (one belonging to the band) refused to budge for the other. It seems almost patronising to mention the band’s vintage (Marshall and Babbington are in their late Seventies) but to produce musicianship of this demanding nature on a regular basis with set lists lasting up to 2 hours cannot pass without mention – it was an admirably high class performance.
Final word must go to ‘Hidden Details’ – a hugely impressive album whichever way you look at it. After you’ve worked your way through many of the tracks described above, you’re left with a final couple of pieces, not contained within the live set but well worth waiting for. ‘Fourteen Hour Dream’ is a weaving piece which jams lightly around a fine Babbington groove with superb flute from author Theo Travis. There are hints here of Seventies band Catapilla or perhaps more pertinently, the Forgas Band, and strange to say that Etheridge’s subtle, understated guitar licks are amongst my favourite moments from him on the album. The vibe is continued in more meditational mode on the lovely dronish ‘Breathe’, and one could not find a greater contrast with the album’s opening salvos. Perhaps the only evidence on view that the band are considering winding things down – let’s hope not just yet…