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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Regal Worm – An Overview

RegalWormAlbums In My Collection

– Use and Ornament
– Neither use nor ornament (A small collection of big suites)

An Overview

At first, I was preparing to write a review of only one of the albums by Regal Worm. But then I got so caught up in the music and soon came to the conclusion that both the debut release, Use and Ornament (2013), and its follow up Neither use nor ornament (A small collection of big suites) (2014), are so damned similar in style, tone, production, and quality that writing a review of either album could actually apply to both since it’s nearly impossible to differentiate between the two. Therefore, I decided to write a general Band Overview instead.

Well, let me tell you, no matter which album is playing, it’s instantly apparent that Regal Worm is truly bizarre and generally off-the-wall. Talk about eclectic Prog-Rock!

To me, these albums sound as if a musician so outrageously brilliant and twisted such as Frank Zappa had joined forces with the group Gong or another of the more experimental Canterbury Scene or Psychedelic Rock Prog bands, which then merged with Frogg Café, Van Der Graaf Generator, and Jumbo, then asked Brian Eno or Robert Fripp for production assistance, who then gathered together a bunch of Burt Bacharach “bah bah da ba day” type of background singers from the 1960s to perform some sort of demented, maniacal, and wacky Broadway show or movie soundtrack.

Each Regal Worm release includes so many styles, so many instruments, so many segments within every song, with some spoken parts, some vocals parts, and tons of musical eras merged into one, that it’s hard to keep track of all the various influences, the shifting rhythms, the number of odd time signatures, and all the strange sounds tossed into each track. With musical moods, themes, and atmospheres changing seemingly at 1000 miles per minute, you will certainly find zero time to relax during the proceedings.

The result is nothing short of interesting, often jaw-dropping, sometimes highly enjoyable, but mostly just a bit—no, not just a bit, but REALLY strange. I mean, seriously, how many bands today (or even in history) can boast of including not only the usual guitars, bass, drums, and just about every type of keyboard imaginable (including Mellotron) on an album, but also just about everything else imaginable from sax, flute, clarinet, and trumpet, to harp, vibes, violin, even whistles? Not many, I’m sure. One definitely has to wonder if even the kitchen sink is also being used somewhere in the background. Perhaps one of the many unusual percussion instruments to appear? We may never know the answer to that, but you certainly have to give the band credit for its originality and diversity.

Regardless, when you see song titles such as “Cherish That Rubber Rodent” and “6:17 PM The Aunt Turns Into An Ant,” or “Confession From a Deep and Warm Hibernaculum” and (the zaniest, and my favorite) “Odilon Escapes From the Charcoal Oblivion but Endeavours to Return and Rescue the Cactus Men,” you know you’re in for one wild and goofy ride. It’s like a musical version of the Marx Brothers on crystal meth. So if you’re adventurous enough to listen to either of Regal Worm’s albums, be sure to hang on to your seat belts or you might find yourself with a nasty case of whiplash.

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Samuel Hällkvist – Variety Of Live (2015)

SamuelHallkvist_Variety3 out of 5 Stars!

This is the only album I own thus far from this (mostly) instrumental band (or solo artist project with numerous musicians included). Here, a mixture of styles can be found, but mainly (in my opinion) are “Canterbury Scene Prog-Rock” influences such as Caravan, Gong, Hatfield And The North, National Health, but all wrapped up in a majestic, dreamy and hypnotic Ozric Tentacles-like atmospheric/jazzy blanket.

A perfect example of this merging of styles and influences can be located on the track “Chord, Horror Cacui.” The track begins with a slow and swirling trip down the Canterbury road, building up to a wailing and spacey jazz-rock frenzy. “Kiopotec” is another adventurous trek into jazz-land where the ultra-punchy rhythm section slams its way into almost otherworldly territory.

“Heru Ra-Ha Road” delivers even more instrumental strangeness, while a female singer adds her vocal gymnastics over various parts of the track, which immediately brings to mind some of the spaciest albums I own from acts such as Gong, Steve Hillage, or Khan. And when, during the track “Music For The Maraca Triplet,” vibes and light trumpet appear during the intro, along with more unusual percussion instruments, I get the sense of venturing into the realm of Avant-Prog.

Although many of the tracks are rather interesting and engaging, they are, unfortunately, hardly memorable. There are no “hooks,” per se, no catchy melody lines even when it comes to the sparse vocal bits, just a lot of free-form music to create specific moods. This is why I rated this collection with only an “average/pleasant” 3 Stars overall.

I’m not familiar with the band’s previous three releases, so I can’t declare whether they offer the same sort of adventurous material, but this latest one is definitely that. So for those fans of the “Canterbury Scene,” or perhaps the spacier Prog-Rock scene who like a ton of jazz tossed into their instrumental music, this might be a band/artist you’ll want to investigate to see if it’s to your liking.

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Hatfield and the North – An Overview

HaitfieldNorthAlbums In My Collection

– Hatfield And The North
– The Rotters’ Club

An Overview

Hatfield And The North were a rather fun band that didn’t seem to take itself too seriously, yet, sadly, the band didn’t last very long either.

Part of Prog-Rock’s “Canterbury Scene”—and created by former members of bands such as Egg, Caravan, and Gong, basically making them a “supergroup” of the genre—the band possessed all the elements and the talent to make for some exciting music—whimsical lyrics and vocals, highly complicated arrangements where each musician was given the chance to shine, the liberal use of sax and woodwinds, and even scores of odd time signatures/rhythm shifts. Jazz influences on many of the tracks also lent heavily to their overall sound, which sometimes reminds me of Zappa/Mothers Of Invention, Gentle Giant, National Health, Camel, Caravan, and a host of other truly creative acts of the era.

Of course, again because of the musicians involved—their experience both prior to Hatfield And The North’s formation or shortly after its quick demise—the comparisons to National Health, Camel, Caravan shouldn’t come as any great shock. The genre, as a whole, seemed to be quite incestuous, with many of its musicians joining together into various packs for brief periods of time, then disbanding, only to have those members create new bands with members from other recently disbanded packs, and so on and so on as the years advanced. This made for some interesting combinations of musicians along the way, and some terrific and unforgettable music, but many of the albums produced by one outfit sounded quite similar to those produced by other outfits due to this intermingling of musicians. The one thing Hatfield And The North had going for it is that the two mere albums the band produced before disbanding were truly memorable and exceptional. In other words, this particular combination of musicians didn’t stick together long enough to get boring or complacent and, for these two releases, were at the height of a creative peak.

Regardless of the band’s influences or each members’ individual histories, Hatfield And The North somehow created its own style/sound, its own identity, and often seemed ahead of its time. It amazes me that they aren’t better known and lauded more broadly within the Prog-Rock community, although perhaps their limited output has something to do with that.

Although I find the second album, The Rotter’s Club, a near masterpiece, both albums are nevertheless quite exceptional examples of the “Canterbury Scene” genre.  Even though both releases contain a slew of short tracks, most of them interconnect, running into each other and sandwiching a few lengthier pieces, giving each album the feeling of having only one long song gracing each album side. Not many other bands could pull this off successfully, but Hatfield And The North seems to have done it with ease.

And even though I find most of the band’s individual tracks fascinating, thus making it impossible to list my favorites, I must make special mention of the multi-part track “Mumps,” the undeniable “must hear” epic that takes up nearly the entire “B” side of The Rotter’s Club. If anyone wants a succinct lesson of what the entire “Canterbury Scene” of Progressive Rock was truly all about regarding its general sound, they need not hunt any further for a better example than this twenty-and-a-half minute track—it’s the entire genre presented in a nutshell of utter perfection. Every fan of Prog-Rock should own a copy of this track from this (occasionally) horribly overlooked band.

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Sheshet – Sheshet ~ 30th Anniversary Expanded Edition (1977)

Sheshet_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

Sheshet was an interesting band from Israel that produced only (shamefully) a single album back in 1977, which was reissued in 2008 with “Bonus” material included. Featuring both female and male vocals, all singing in Hebrew (I’m assuming) and with complicated, interweaving harmonies, the band created outstanding jazz-inspired Progressive Rock on its lone album. Especially enjoyable are the extended flute excursions on various tracks along with the occasional reed instrument, violin/fiddle, and the addition of extra percussion instruments sprinkled throughout, which gives added dimension and sophistication to the sound.

I hear a bit of Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull (thanks, obviously, to the flute), as well as a touch of Caravan and Camel in Sheshet’s overall sound, along with a smattering of influences from Jazz-Rock/Fusion bands such as Return To Forever and Weather Report. The keyboardist (notable for the heavy use of jazzy piano) is also worth mentioning as well as the band’s rhythm section, which seems to have quite a lot of fun tossing in shifting rhythms and odd time signatures.

For Prog-Rock fans, this is an impressive release…a lost and forgotten gem.

 

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Samurai – Samurai (1971)

Samurai_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

In many ways, depending on which track one is playing, the lone Samurai album sounds like a cross between the Avant-Garde Prog-Rock of Gentle Giant and King Crimson, meets Psychedelic-Rock such as Amon Duul II and Pink Floyd, meets Jazz-Rock-Fusion such as Zappa (Hot Rats-era) and East Of Eden, meets Canterbury-Prog such as Caravan and Hatfield And The North, meets…well, whatever.

Yeah, as I’m sure you can already guess, this band has a wide variety of styles that encompasses its overall sound, an interesting blend of diverse sub-genres all wrapped up in a Prog-Rock blanket that—who knew?—actually seems to work! Too damned bad the group didn’t last longer to record more than this single album.

Much of the group’s eclectic style has to do with the inclusion of two woodwind players, who add sax, clarinet, and flute, plus the varied keyboards of Dave Lawson (Greenslade/The Web/Stackridge), who also handles the lead vocals. Psych guitar and fuzz bass round out Samurai’s sound, while the band’s twin percussionists steer the proceedings into Rock, Jazz, and Funk territories.

With tracks such as “Face in the Mirror,” “More Rain,” “Holy Padlock,” “As I Dried the Tears Away,” and “Maudie James,” which still sound fresh after all these many decades, Samurai’s one and only album is a masterpiece of originality hidden by decades of non-advertisement and non-accolades that the band wholeheartedly deserved.

 

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Birds And Buildings – Bantam To Behemoth (2008)

BirdsBuildings_Bantam4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I don’t often use the word “adventurous” when describing Prog-Rock bands these days, since most groups within the genre are firmly expanding on ideas/sounds already well-established by the granddaddy’s of Prog-Rock—Genesis, Yes, Gentle Giant, ELP, Zappa, etc. But when it comes to Birds And Buildings, that “adventurous” word does indeed apply. What style of music does this group from Maryland play exactly? Prog-Rock, Jazz-Rock, Eclectic-Rock, Bizarre-Rock? I’m not sure what the musicians had in mind when first getting together and developing a sound, but what they ended up with is certainly a merging of all of those genre labels.

Indeed, this mostly instrumental band has such a wide range of styles, and seemed to incorporate just about every musical instrument apart from the proverbial kitchen sink into its music, that I cannot give anything but grand kudos to Birds And Buildings for attempting something totally different from just about anything else being produced nowadays. On highly diverse tracks such as “Battalion,” “Caution Congregates and Forms a Storm,” “Tunguska,” “Yucatan 65: The Agitation of the Mass,” and (keeping the band’s name in mind) the sardonically titled “Birds Flying Into Buildings,” the music can be chaotic one moment, then pastoral the next, then jarring or dreamy, then jaw-droppingly beautiful or wonderfully dissonant, then…well, you name it, the exact meaning of “Progressive” rock. I could never quite anticipate where the music would lead, and after sampling only a few tracks off Bantam To Behemoth, I realized that I didn’t quite care, considering the ride was so outrageously fun.

Therefore, you name the sub-genre of Prog-Rock (Neo-Prog, Canterbury Prog, Avant-Garde Prog, etc.) and Birds And Buildings covers it. As I said before, the music can be jaw-dropping. Thankfully, the musicians came together for another album, 2013’s Multipurpose Trap, which proved nearly as impressive, and two of the band members (keyboardist/guitarist Dan Britton—formerly of Cerebus Effect—and bassist/guitarist Brett D’Anon) are also current members of Deluge Grander, another highly creative act that delivers music in a myriad of styles. But I have to say, that when Britton and D’Anon join up with sax/woodwind player Brian Falkowski and drummer/trumpeter/viola player Malcolm McDuffie in Birds and Buildings, things get really entertaining…just expect the unexpected.

 

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