In the Rock music world there are recordings that have become landmarks; decades may pass over its original production but a consensus perdures on its exceptional qualities, even among those that may have born long after. In other cases the consensus does not exit, by one reason or another, an outstanding work can push the limits in such a way that it alienates part of the listeners spectrum. It is one of these records I would like to board today: Fifth by Soft Machine.
Soft Machine was on of the bands emerging in Canterbury in the late 1960s towards international recognition. They took a particular approach to Rock, embedding elements of Jazz, in what would become known as Jazz-Rock. In spite of being one of the unavoidable precursors of the genre, Soft Machine remained for a few years well ahead of its peers, avoiding any fall into stereotypes. These first few LPs evolved around the trio composed by Mike Rutledge (organ), Hugh Hopper (electric bass) and Robert Wyatt (drums), later with the important addition of Elton Dean (alto sax). This core line up featured in the first four LPs of the band, each time diving further into Jazz, composing what are today its most appreciated recordings.
Robert Wyatt would leave the band right after, still in 1971, and almost two years passed before the band returned to studio. Late in 1972 the band would finally release their Fifth LP, which would be the last in several aspects: the last featuring Elton Dean and the last really experimenting into Jazz (actually Free Jazz), for instance with concurrent double bass and electric bass. It went once again into territories where neither Rock nor Jazz listeners feel completely comfortable. However, in doing so, the band epitomised the work of its early carer and perhaps even the true essence of Jazz Rock.
A spacey intro with a reverbed saxophone and fuzz bass that sounds completely apart from anything else, immediately grabbing the listener. Eventually evolves into a familiar jazz rock piece with Mike and the drums joining in. Still, it sounds well ahead of its time.
Another eerie intro, this time using a repeater plugged to the electric piano, again recreating the sense of vanguard. A lead organ slowly emerges, backed by a full jazzy ensemble. The remainder of the musicians, although having great freedom to improvise, still keep the listener focused with simple melodies here and there. It gives a warming sense of discovery and leaves the listener looking forward for what may come next.
A collective improvisation from which no distinguishable rhythmic structure or melody ever emerges, producing a somewhat dysfunctional exit to side A. This is one of the efforts that may have lend some bad reputation to the LP, but it makes sense.
A short bass phrase on tame tempo sets the scene for a great deal of experimentation from the other instruments, especially the double bass, here played with the bow. Slowly the song melts down, like a fresh painting washed by rain, losing the rhythmic structure and melody. Expectation builds up, in a way that can be painful for the less jazzy listener, eventually leading into the following track.
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A noisy and chaotic intermission with all the instruments together closing the previous track and opening up for a short drum solo, still leaves the listener in uncomfortable territory.
Totally cuts with the previous chaos in a very elegant way. The band brings you back again to comfortable territory with the familiar and plasent Soft Machine signature sound of the previous LPs. This time the leading melody is produced by Dean.
It comes out of nowhere, putting an end to the previous track and again immersing the listener in a futuristic soundscape. A tame but spacey bass supports an organ melody with an out of this world reverbed flute improvising. It is a mysterious sound alike anything else that slowly fades away.
The LP takes an arc like shape going from comfortable Soft Machine sounds, plugging into full fledged Free Jazz and then coming back again to the familiar Jazz-Rock.
Apart from the dearths into Free Jazz this LP also contains some outstanding space pieces, especially in All White, Drop and Bone, that make it all the more interesting. These are unique experiments that the band would never try again, producing sounds well ahead of their time.
The early 1970s were a time of great experimentation. Jazz musicians where captured and drawn to Rock and Rock musicians boldly delved into Jazz. This record is likely the best portrait of this epoch, blurring the boundaries between the two genres. Some might say that Soft Machine went too far, but Progressive Rock is just that, going where no one went before. Thus I can only classify this work as a Masterpiece.
After Fifth Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge kept the Soft Machine running, but rapidly retreating to the comfortable sounds of bare Jazz-Rock, at times producing pleasant music, but never daring as before.