Soft Machine – Third (1970)

SoftMachine_31.5 out of 5 Stars!

Throughout the seventies as I got more and more into Progressive Rock, I heard endless praise about this band, how Soft Machine were so “brilliant,” so “revolutionary,” so “extraordinary” and “mature” and “inspirational,” especially when it came to influencing the entire Canterbury Scene of Progressive Rock. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to hear the band. I remember my excitement when finally snagging this two-platter set, praying it would be the “unrivaled gem” music reviewers claimed, and expecting to hear the Tales of Topographic Oceans equivalent for the Canterbury Scene of Prog-Rock.

But damn, was I ever disappointed. Sorry to say, but after hearing this album, I could find nothing enthralling about it or the band in general, certainly nothing that would justify the praise heaped upon this two-album set. I almost wondered if I had somehow gotten the wrong platters within the album sleeve. Yes, the band continues to have a die-hard fan base that wholeheartedly believes the material on this album is indeed brilliant, revolutionary, etc., so perhaps it’s simply a matter of personal preference that I find their output well below average (and, yes, yawn-worthy). I thought so at the time of initially hearing this album, and upon listening to it recently (hoping the many decades would have altered my tastes or softened my original judgment), I realized that my initial reaction to this album still applied. Frankly, I just don’t get it.

Sure, Soft Machine incorporates a few intriguing moments of enjoyment within their (generally) Jazz-Rock/Psychedelic Rock/Avant-Rock excursions, but in my opinion, there’s truly nothing that places them high on the scale of “impressive Prog-Rock” music, certainly not when other bands from the Canterbury Scene had greater talent (and wrote actual memorable songs) during the same historical era.

The “A” Side contains the nineteen-minute track “Facelift.” For the first seven full minutes the listener is confronted by nothing but sound effects and feedback, with some fiddling around on the sax, and I find myself asking, “What’s the point of this?” Nothing is impressive in the slightest—indeed, this section of the track is so annoying that I skipped forward until the actual “song proper” began. And then, although there are some quirky, smile-worthy sax bits atop a light but upbeat rhythm, the track ends up being nothing more than a free-form piece of jazzy experimentation. So there truly is not a “song proper.” The sax eventually leads into a flute solo, and another rhythm begins, but again the track goes completely nowhere. Certainly there’s nothing at all offensive about the music, but the track is also nothing more than bland background filler. Again, it’s all rather pointless; a tuneless, non-structured jam session that just happened to get recorded.

“Slightly All the Time” (the eighteen-plus minute “B” Side track) is only slightly better. At least there’s some marginal structure, not just free-form jamming. Yet the saxes seem to twiddle on and on for eternity over an electric piano and bass, and occasionally play in harmony (so it’s not strictly free-form ad-libbing). But again, the song (if you can even call it that) just goes absolutely nowhere for six minutes before some flute pops in to add a bit of variety. And where are the drums? Oh, there they are, so light in the background that one has to wonder why they’re even included at all. More and more jamming occurs, with no melody to speak of, and again, I have to ask, “What is the point?”

The “C” Side contains the nineteen minute “Moon in June.” And finally, I find the makings of an actual song, with vocals delivering an actual melody (although the lyrics are virtually indecipherable and the voice is not the most appealing) atop some organ, bass, and the drummer playing an actual tempo. At about the six-minute point, electric piano comes in to add a new sound, but until the nine-minute point, seemingly endless fiddling around changes to another “section” that ends up being even more jamming and experimenting with instruments.

Finally, “Out-Bloody-Rageous” (another nineteen minute piece) encompasses the “D” Side. The title of this track says it all. More sound effects for five full minutes before some jazzy sax and piano spring up to seemingly improvise for another five minutes. Then the latter half of the track begins with more sound effects, some brass, more sax, more fiddling and free-form jamming. Yes, out-bloody-rageous indeed that I would waste my time actually trying to wrap my head around the notion that this experimentation is considered a masterpiece of the Canterbury Scene of Progressive Rock.

This is the reason I don’t own more material by Soft Machine. The band truly offered no engaging material to inspire me to investigate (or purchase) the remainder of their back catalogue. Granted, I’m unfamiliar with other Soft Machine albums, so maybe they’re better or at least different, more structured. But from this album (considered their “classic”), I find the band completely “blah.”

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