[Review] Soft Machine: Fourth (1971)

The purely instrumental Fourth, and last to feature Robert Wyatt, contains longer and shorter works in the same vein as Third.

Kronomyth 4.0: The fourth of no moon in July.

The band’s fourth picks up where Third left off and drops Robert Wyatt’s vocals along the way, their metamorphosis into an avant-garde jazz-fusion outfit now complete. The other notable change here is the decision to parcel their instrumental music into smaller packages, although whether the four-part “Virtually” is actually one song or four is debatable (should anyone feel inclined to debate the point). Otherwise, this is very much Third Part 2, and will please fans who enjoyed the expanded horn lineup on their last record.

Mike Ratledge is only credited with writing one song for the album, but what a song it is. Teeth is a thrilling journey along the outer fringes of fusion that recalls the work of Frank Zappa. It ranges from explosive to erudite, and encapsulates everything that was wonderful about this version of the Machine. Hugh Hopper’s languid, dreamlike Kings And Queens is a different sort of trip altogether. Wyatt’s drums tumble and crash softly in the background while Elton Dean solos seductively over the entire song. Where the opening “Teeth” might have come from the metaphorical mouth of Zappa, he never would have written something so introspective and calm as “Kings And Queens.” The first side closes with the group’s first composition credited to Elton Dean, the noisy and sometimes terrifying Fletcher’s Blemish. Hellish horns, frightening organ splashes, chittering drums and some bowed bass from future member Roy Babbington end the first side with an unsettling exclamation point.

Side two is dedicated to Virtually, Parts 1-4. Credited to Hopper, it’s not clear to me how much of this was scripted out by Hopper and how much was improvised by the band. There are some sections that seem pretty tight and others that feel pretty loose, often in the same song (e.g., Virtually, Part 2). Hopper’s preference for simple and often melodic patterns (at least on this album) provide a great foundation for soloing, much of it done by Elton Dean, whose playing continues to give the band a harsh edge. The last two parts delve more into amorphous space sounds (another characteristic of Hopper’s compositions) that give the listener a glimpse into what a Tangerine Dream album arranged for a jazz quartet might sound like.

The band’s once-colorful personality blanched with the decision to become a purely instrumental band. That much I think we can all agree on. But their sense of adventure remained intact as they sailed for the uncharted waters of experimental jazz-rock fusion. It’s really a matter of a very talented group of musicians going off in a different direction and, honestly, writing dadaist musical skits wouldn’t have been sustainable anyway. From this point forward, the band would more or less stay on course, adding electric guitars along the way but sailing from point to point with no stomach for mutineers. If that meant no more stunning surprises, it certainly didn’t signal an end of adventures for Soft Machine.

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Original elpee version

A1. Teeth (Mike Ratledge) (9:15)
A2. Kings And Queens (Hugh Hopper) (5:02)
A3. Fletcher’s Blemish (Elton Dean) (4:35)
B1. Virtually Part 1 (Hugh Hopper) (5:16)
B2. Virtually Part 2 (Hugh Hopper) (7:09)
B3. Virtually Part 3 (Hugh Hopper) (4:33)
B4. Virtually Part 4 (Hugh Hopper) (3:23)

The Players

Elton Dean (alto saxophone & saxello), Hugh Hopper (bass guitar), Mike Ratledge (organ & piano), Robert Wyatt (drums) with Roy Babbington* (double bass), Mark Charig (cornet), Nick Evans (trombone), Jimmy Hastings (alto flute & bass clarinet), Alan Skidmore (tenor sax). Produced by Soft Machine; engineered by George Chkiantz; executive producer: Sean Murphy. (* Credited as “Babington” on the UK back cover.)

The Pictures

Photography by Campbell MacCullum. Sleeve design by Bloomsbury Group. Art direction by John Hays.

The Plastic

Released on elpee on February 28, 1971 in the UK (CBS, S 64280) and the US (C 30754).

  1. Re-issued on elpee in the UK (CBS, S 64280 [sunburst label] and the US (Columbia, PC 30754).
  2. Re-issued on compact disc on September 21, 1991 in Japan (Epic/Sony).
  3. Re-issued on compact disc in 1995 in the US (One Way, ONE-26254).
  4. Re-packaged with Fifth on 2-for-1 compact disc in 1999 in the UK (Columbia, 493341).
  5. Re-released on remastered compact disc on February 19, 2007 in the UK (Sony/BMG, 687291) and on April 18, 2007 in Japan (Sony, MHCP 1294).

1 thought on “[Review] Soft Machine: Fourth (1971)

  1. “Teeth” remains a piece I come back to again and again, along with Henry Cow’s “Ruins” and Zappa’s “It Must Be A Camel”. It seems to have everything that excites me in music. The transitions all work marvellously, the time- and key- and mood-changes are always invigorating, and some moments are just magical. Even if it is a bit ragged live! Ratledge was a compositional inspiration to me from Soft Machine 2 onwards. Lately he seems to have disappeared! He never made the expected solo album; teamed up (nominally) with Karl Jenkins for “Adiemus”; did library music for ads, &c; and wrote a few art-movie soundtracks. Mike, what happened to you? What happened to the genius? Come back!

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