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Soft MachineSoft Machine
Album: Seven
Label: Talking Elephant
Tracks: 12

This is a straight re-release of Soft Machine's seventh studio album (obviously) from 1973. It has previously been available on CD in various versions since 1991, so there is nothing new here. There are no bonus tracks, or new album notes, to tempt the collector or Soft Machine completist. It appears to be part of a recent re-release programme from Talking Elephant, which also includes "4" and "Six".

"Seven" can be seen as a transitional album for Soft Machine. It was their last for CBS, as part of the 5-album deal which commenced with their classic "Third". It also marks the start of the dominance of Karl Jenkins in the group - he wrote seven of the twelve tracks, against only four by Mike Ratledge (sole survivor from the group that made "Third"). It is their first album to use synthesisers, and their last before bringing jazz/rock guitar into the group, (first with the late Alan Holdsworth, then with John Etheridge).

It is also an album which never really took hold - it failed to chart, and the tracks did not really become part of the live Soft Machine repertoire. Only "Down the Road" seems to have featured regularly - live versions were recorded for the group's last ever John Peel Session in November 1973 ["BBC Radio Sessions 1971-74", HUX 047] and on the "NDR Jazz Workshop" sessions in Hamburg [Cuneiform Records, Rune 305/306]. There is also a short live version of Penny Hitch, from 1975 in Bremen, on "Floating World Live" [Moonjune Records, MJR007]. Interestingly, the Hamburg version of "Down the Road" was taped in May 1973, two months before the studio recording.

However, given the passage of time, it is now possible to see "Seven" as a greatly under-rated work. Though it was written and recorded quickly, both because there was little money left at the end of their CBS deal, and also because there was a US tour planned and Soft Machine needed an album to promote, it is a good album. The recording quality is excellent, the playing strong and the tunes varied. Its predecessor "Six" had been a rather rambling double LP of mainly live tracks. On "Seven" the writing is tight - the longest track ("Penny Hitch") is less than seven minutes long. On the other hand, it follows on from the mood of "Six" with its mixture of styles and its more relaxed feel, following the departure of saxophonist Elton Dean. What is most striking about this album is its combination of standard Soft Machine riff-based tunes and more ambient styles, often developing the live "sound loop" approach pioneered on "Third" and developed on "Six".

"Seven" opens with a fast and funky riff, typical of Karl Jenkins writing for "Nucleus". It features Mike Ratledge on synthesiser, which he employs to produce a 'flute' solo over the repeated riff of Jenkins' keyboard.

The core of the album comprises two 'suites'. The first starts with a slow, gentle ballad by Jenkins ("Carol Ann") also reminiscent of his style on Nucleus' "Elastic Rock". Ratledge's synth and Roy Babbington's ambling bass lead into the first of three tunes by Mike, "Day's Eye". This starts gently by developing the theme of "Carol Ann", before building tempo into a typical Ratledge distorted-organ solo. "Bone Fire" is a short bridge, with Jenkins on Baritone sax and Ratledge on electric piano, leading into "Tarabos", another up-tempo funky riff. The track is under-pinned by Babbington and Ratledge, repeating the riff beneath Jenkins oboe solo, and anchored by John Marshall's solid rock drumming. The latter finishes off with a drum solo which segues into an unusual solo on percussion, which appears to use oriental cymbals or Balinese bowls.

Side two of the original vinyl album is almost entirely written by Jenkins. "Snodland" is no more than a gentle, ambient keyboard intro, (of the sort which Mike used on "Third"), leading into the slow riff of "Penny Hitch". Karl's baritone lays down a melodic theme over Mike's piano 'loop', before a sudden stop and re-start allows the volume and tempo to increase as Jenkins switches back to oboe for his solo; again he virtually reprises an old Nucleus solo. The tempo switches again, as the bass and electric piano riff leads into "Block". This sounds like Jenkins attempt to write a typical Soft Machine tune, and provides another organ solo slot for Ratledge, before ending with a complex double-time riff.

The afore-mentioned "Down the Road" - another Jenkins tune built on a repeated bass/piano riff - features him on recorder, then oboe, before giving Babbington a chance to add an emotive arco-bass solo. This then evolves directly into the ambient finale of swirling and looping double keyboards; Ratledge starts with "The German Lesson" which morphs imperceptibly into Jenkins "The French Lesson".

"Seven" is a subtle album which basically combines the various strands of Soft Machine, as it had been developing since "Third", with the jazz-rock feel which Jenkins had brought with him from Nucleus. Whilst not a massively innovative album, it refines and consolidates the strengths of Softs' mature style: interlacing riff-based tunes, live keyboard 'loops' (obviously influenced by Terry Riley), emotionally-charged solos and early attempts at ambient music. If you have missed this link in the Soft Machine story, do search it out at:

Martin Price