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SOFT MACHINE – HØVIKODDEN, 1971 – CUNEIFORM RECORDS (2024) 4 X CD & 4 x LP boxsets

Having written the first part of my review in DISS, I finally got around to listening to the rest of this ‘blast from the past’, a recording I believe is of great musicological importance. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to see Soft Machine live, but was familiar with their music way back then, so this is like a lost ‘holy grail’ to me. Just a reminder that this is a first-time release of the whole 2-night stand at the Henie-Onstad Art Center near Oslo in February, 1971.


Anyway, I am on track 16 now which is another version of ‘Facelift’, a teasing start hinting at the theme, magically exposed by a band constantly searching and probing - this one sure cleared out my early morning cobwebs! Clocking in again at around 10-minutes, ‘Virtually’ reminded me of the new form of jazz this band created, exhilarating organ and bass extemporisations, Elton Dean’s exuberant sax, loved the playful bit at the end, reminded me of “Clangers”! It feels its way into ‘Slightly All the Time’, a wonderful vehicle for some mellifluous sax to electric piano chords. It should never be forgotten either what an innovative drummer Robert Wyatt was: what an ear he had – you can literally feel him ‘tuning in’ into where the others are going, fuzz bass about 7-minutes in is the signal for one of Mike Ratledge’s famous Lowry organ breaks.


‘Fletcher’s Blemish’ seamlessly blends in with the four ‘giant’ tracks on the double album, reverberating drums introducing musicianship that reaches a frenzied peak in places. A sax line leads ‘Neo Caliban Glides’ into free form heaven, amazing sounds coaxed from the sax and organ: rasps and sounds like a broken-down steam engine, Wyatt’s drum clatter and roll, electric piano joining the fray in a superb evocation of the avant-garde. Then there’s ‘Out Bloody Rageous’, with its memorable mazy Hugh Hopper bass line, electric piano and sax then another organ run, more fine sax soloing towards the finishing riff. ‘Eamonn Andrews/ All White’ is next, the squealing sax remarkable; ‘Kings and Queens’ demonstrate again the power of Wyatt’s on the edge drumming. There’s a terrific version of ‘Teeth’ with its insistent organ/ electric piano lines, more mazy bass, a cheeky nod to ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ near the end. The encore is a barely recognisable ‘Slightly All the Time’, the sax is superb, the theme only appearing at the end of a truncated version.


Much of the fascination with Soft Machine lies in their live recordings as each time they play a number it sounds different and very much of its moment. And yet they could not truly be described as uncompromisingly avant-garde as melody and rock were always at the heart of their music: their extemporisations were seldom overindulgent and created an atmosphere bordering on the supernatural: listen to Wyatt’s vocal improvisation as an example. Essential! And, by the way, it really does sound like the band is playing right in front of you!

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