- The legacy of Soft Machine going strong more than 40 years later
Despite the obvious conclusion one might make after seeing that band name, this is not, in fact, a Soft Machine cover band. It’s the real deal—this IS Soft Machine. I actually love the name of this group because it just makes so much damn sense: Soft Machine Legacy still contains three members of the pioneering Canterbury group (John Etheridge, Roy Babbington, and John Marshall), whose tenures in the heydey of the band overlapped for about a year in 1975-1976. Actually, as I was re-listening to some older Soft Machine stuff in preparation for this review, I noticed that Moon in June, the third track off 1970’s “Third”, sounds an awful lot like MoonJune Records (who released Burden of Proof). But I digress.
Burden of Proof (the title track) is a fun opener, and got me right into the album. Celestial keyboard playing will do that to you. The theme throughout this album, at least for me, is that this latest incarnation of Soft Machine is much jazzier than the classic albums of the 60’s and 70’s; Exhibit A is the section from about 1:30 to 2:30, which could easily have the guitar dropped and fit in perfectly as a coffee house trio. Nice solos (especially Etheridge’s first guitar solo), and a good example of modern jazz melody.
Our first taste of free form sections awaits us in Voyage Beyond Seven. This track starts off a little funky before making a swift transition into an emotional Theo Travis sax solo, then into an extended free form section. It starts off with fingerstyle guitar and percussion musings clashing with some beautiful flute, but eventually devolves into your prototypical avant jazz mush. If that’s your kind of thing then more power to you, but I like a little more structure and thought in my jazz. That being said, the beginning of the section was very interesting and left me wanting more.
Kitto is a short guitar interlude. Nothing special, but a good use of effects.
“One, two, three!” You know it’s gonna be good if there’s a count off. Pie Chart proves to be a sultry jazz piece, plain and simple. The basic formula is there: moaning sax, heavy bass, almost-too-sluggish tempo, and swing feel.
JSP = another interlude, purely percussive.
Kings and Queens and Fallout were cool pieces to listen to in tandem. With the former, you get some of Travis’ finest flute work on the album, ethereal sounds, and a mellow but haunting jazz expedition; with the latter, you get harsh transitions, the experimental tendencies typical of eclectic progressive rock, and the rest of Travis’ finest flute work on the album, all bookended by a little bit of funky goodness.
The final sub-2:00 interlude track is my personal favorite. Going Somewhere Canorous? is short but interesting, and has some very cool bass riffing with percussion to provide texture.
Black and Crimson delivers some classic jazz/rock fusion reminiscent of Jeff Beck’s 70’s recordings, with the sort of melody I usually salivate over (played on the mighty Rhodes by the woodwind guy—go figure). The guitar solo Etheridge rips off at the beginning of the tune is my favorite on the record, and picks up nicely around the 2:00 mark with a few gorgeous runs. I like the sax solo as well, but the guitar solo obviously stood out on each play through of this album, so it will define the track for me.
The Brief is… brief. Finally I get a traditional drum solo (and not a moment too soon), followed by a little frenetic sax/drum action. This might be a good time to comment on John Marshalls drumming: it’s pretty darn good, and fits the album well. I wasn’t blown away at any point, but I have zero criticisms (especially in regard to how his kit sounds).
A little rock n’ roll finally makes an appearance in Pump Room. The tune is straightforward but well executed, and features a guitar solo that is actually far more interesting for the tone than it is for the notes being played. On a related note, if anyone knows what was used to produce that guitar sound, let me know. It also creates an interesting dynamic in dueling solos with the sax, but for my money, it was a sideshow to Travis’ tremendous playing.
Green Cubes was honestly the only track on the album that I ever felt like skipping. Admittedly, it falls into that “not my thing” category of music; you know the one, where you can admit the musicians are obviously talented but the composition just didn’t connect with you on any level. I’m being completely honest when I say that my favorite part of the tune was the guitar chords fading out at the end.
The album closes with They Landed on a Hill, another mellow track that consists of only interplay between the guitar and the Rhodes. It’s good music but is also sort of a weak ending for the album, especially coming right after Green Cubes.
Overall, Burden of Proof is a polished musical journey by four veterans of the progressive rock and jazz scenes. I’ve learned not to pigeonhole any releases that come from MoonJune into a specific style, but if you held a gun to my head and forced me to classify this album I’d have to say “jazz”. Still, there are plenty of progressive rock and avant leanings, and at it’s core this is a well executed album that should appeal to many open-minded listeners.