From their psychedelic roots, progressive edge, and blazing fusion, Soft Machine has traversed the past 50 years engaging fans all around the world. Their latest album, “Hidden Details,” find them dropping Legacy at the tail of their name, reverting back to their 60’s and 70’s origins while introducing several new songs into their already large canon of music. Recorded at Temple Studio in Surrey, England during December 2017, the album has been released in North America on MoonJune Records, while in UK/Europe fans can find it on John Etheridge's Dyan Records label, and in the Japanese market on Vivid Records.
The band is comprised of three members from their 70’s incarnation, famed electric and acoustic guitarist John Etheridge , the incredible Roy Babbington playing bass and the steady John Marshall hitting the drums. As on other recent Soft Machine Legacy releases, Theo Travis joins them adding in Sax, Flute, and Fender Rhodes Piano, plus special guest Nick Utteridge playing wind chimes on track 13.
When ordering through Band Camp fans will receive a link to download a 44.1k / 24bit version of the album, which likely provides greater detail over the CD edition. That is the version reviewed here, which offers good dynamics and a full bottom that typically is lacking on 16bit editions. However, I don’t have a comparison CD on hand, but still recommend getting a hold of the download edition when ordering the CD through Band Camp.
Ethridge lays down an arpeggiated intro on the title track which starts off the record and is somewhat reminiscent of King Crimson’s Red release. The raspy guitar extends across from the left to right, allowing for great depth and a real edge that sounds wonderfully electrifying while being placed in a mid-sized acoustic space. The remainder of the quartet kicks in with Babbington’s bass digging into the bottom and Travis’s sax extending a legato melody around the guitar part.
A distinct lively feel is captured on the remake of the classic “The Man Who Waved At Trains” originally recorded on their 1975 Bundles album. Marshall’s drum work softly spatters deeply into the sound stage and I sense he is sitting right in my listening room. There is an absolutely delightful delay on the guitar that crosses from left to right with keyboards falling behind the rhythmic structure. It is the enigmatic flute which takes to flight in this piece with an airy yet close aural tonality, soaring during Travis’s solo and gently landing back into the melody at the end.
Although Soft Machine largely was compositionally an egalitarian affair, this 2018 release finds Travis and Etheridge as the group's primary composers. The band also ventures far from defined structures outward to pure freedom and grand openness, evoking the lifelong spirit of Soft Machine all while bundling up its distinctive sound into a modern soundscape. Even Ethridge’s solos are tamed into melodic riffs, forgoing the light-speed guitar work heard on their 1976 “Softs” album.
The delicate balance of the overall mix provides clear definition for each instrument spread across a pleasantly wide sound stage that falls behind the main front stereo channels. I continue to be impressed by the open feel and bottom end that gives a somewhat club feel while not being clubby at all. Rather this studio album has been well recorded, showing off the characteristics of each player with fantastic interplay.
The groove-driven “One Glove” takes a thematic passage that intersperses four bars of four beats with one bar of two. It then opens up to a regular 4/4 vamp whereby Babbington and Marshall's lightly funky rhythms provides plenty of solo space for both Etheridge and Travis. One can hear the spirit of Alan Holdsworth throughout Ehtridge’s solo which melodically glides across the fretboard giving way to a flurry filled follow up on Sax by Travis.
As a fan of ambient, I absolutely love the free flowing “Breathe,” which blends layers of improvised flute over looped Ambitronics along with some of Marshall's most delicate playing, augmented by Nick Utteridge’s wind chimes. Some editions, including the download version continue this grounding closing with “Night Sky,” a gentle flute and guitar piece which are similarly looped and co-credited to Travis and Etheridge.
The band is currently on tour, and they have quite simply delivered their best album of the new millennium. I strongly recommend picking up Hidden Details and finding the best location for you to see their live show, which is equally as remarkable.