This reissue gains little fan-fair from Talking Elephant Records, the cover being reproduced almost as a simulacrum from the original 1971 CBS release. And a cover open to interpretation it is. It features the same photograph of the band on outer and inner gatefold, with an almost crimson sepia on the outside and black and white inner. The now four-piece Softs are, left-right: Hugh Hopper (bass), seeming an earnest and bearded Chemistry PhD student staring at the camera; Elton Dean (horns), arms folded, head slightly down looking off to the left of the cover; Robert Wyatt (drums, and only drums), seeming to pose as Richard III, body in profile but full face to the camera; Mike Ratledge (organ and piano), looming in the foreground, full face, but with his head framed in a mass of straight dark hair, semi-masked by a thick black moustache, and eyes firmly covered by shades. This coolest of jazz-rock bands does not, it has to be said, look to be in good shape at this stage in its career.
To re-cap - having formed in Canterbury and then London in the febrile climate of the mid-60s, with members of their original line-up including Daevid Allen and Kevin Ayers, Soft Machine had rivalled Pink Floyd as the darlings of the underground, toured with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and released two classic albums of Dadaist psychedelia, with Hopper replacing the departed Ayers alongside Wyatt and Ratledge for the second album (Allen having been refused re-entry to the UK as a politically suspect Australian citizen). With the addition of Dean, the quartet's third album "Third" (yes) had featured four sides of music but only one song "Moon in June", signalling a change in emphasis away from Wyatt's uniquely English phrasing and high tenor. "Third" was almost, but not quite, jazz. "Fourth" very firmly corrects that position.
"Teeth" opens the set. Double bass and electric piano, alto sax and crashing drums perform an aspirating, swirling dance, wild and punctuated by rim-shots, piano chords and bass figures that replicate elements of the former Soft Machine sound in a much more jazz format. Nearly four minutes in, the tune disintegrates and reforms around Ratledge's trademark organ sound which trades licks with the sax of Dean and added horns and brass from Roy Babbington, Nick Evans, Mark Charig, Jimmy Hastings and Alan Skidmore for the remaining six minutes or so, before again falling in on itself in spectacular fashion.
"Kings and Queens" is more restrained, Dean's saxophone taking a plaintive tone, over electric bass harmonics from Hopper, some lovely crunching organ from Ratledge, and drumming from Wyatt which emphasises just how effective a sticks-man he was. "Fletcher's Blemish" opens on bowed bass and tinkling cymbals, before Ratledge (on simultaneous piano and organ) and Dean on saxello crash into the foreground, encouraging more coverage of the kit form Wyatt and plentiful cornet trills from Charig. Noisy stuff, guaranteed to irritate the non-jazz lover in your life.
"Virtually (Parts 1-4)" occupied the second side of the original lp. Starting from a cool base in Part 1, electric piano underlying chorused horns and brass, with Hopper covering the length of his bass's neck, the track subsiding to give Wyatt almost complete dominance for a few seconds in the middle, before the group concentrates its combined attention on reaching a muted climax, which gives way to Ratledge's high right hand on the beastly distortion sound which he, along with David Sinclair of Caravan, exploited to such good effect. The blown instruments seem to crawl at the feet of this sound for half of the tune, and then all coalesce around the resurgent sax of Dean, with Ratledge's piano and Hopper's electric bass now forming a solid textural structure for his improvised soaring and rising patterns to work upon. Part 3 beings with tapes running backwards from Part 3, and these gradually emerge from the morass, with bass and sax giving way to the portentous and sinister sound of Ratledge's organ. This in turn makes room for some distorted electric bass form Hopper which must surely have made Jack Bruce (a later Softs participant) blush. This in turn glides into Part 4, formed from glistening electric keys, deftly pulled bass hamronics, with a repeated sax pattern over restrained but energetic drumming, all finally coming together to a pattern which ends, somewhat too abriuptly to my ear.
A somewhat transitional album perhaps, but one which has some sublime moments on it, if perhaps sometimes uncharacteristically restrained in places. Shortly after completion, Wyatt departed for further experimentation with solo work and Matching Mole, before his ill-fated but paradoxically career-defining fall from a fourth-floor window in June 1973. Soft Machine's next album "Fifth" (you guessed it) was perhaps more free-flowing and melodic, but "Fourth" certainly demands its place in the history of this unique and important band and, indeed, in that of progressive music. I do wish Talking Elephant had taken the opportunity to put some liner notes into the package, though.
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