[Review] The Soft Machine: Volume Two (1969)

The second installment of their psychedelic jazz circus and first to feature fuzz-bass extraordinaire Hugh Hopper.

Kronomyth 2.0: Bonzo fury.

The Soft Machine’s second album finds the band working in the context of larger constructs—in this case, two side-long suites called “Rivmic Melodies” and “Esther’s Nose Job”—that were broken into smaller pieces at the suggestion (I’ve read somewhere) of Frank Zappa. In many ways, this record feels like a meeting between The Mothers of Invention and Bonzo Dog Band. Dadaist principles prevail, but they’re presented with a self-deprecating sense of humor, so that the music is both charming and alarming.

While Volume Two may well be their best foot forward, it also presents their Achilles heel: volatility. The (friendly) departure of Kevin Ayers opened the door for the return of Hugh Hopper, whose aggressive fuzz-bass gives the material a much (and perhaps much-needed) darker edge. Over the years, The Soft Machine would morph into a jazz fusion outfit as Mike Ratledge inherited control of the group. You’ll hear the beginning of that transformation on the second side (e.g., “Orange Skin Food”), where tight keyboard patterns and tilted saxophones create a skewed sort of punk jazz. Hopper, however, seems happy to meddle in both worlds, contributing jazzy bass lines one moment, and writing delightfully dadaist songs like “Hulloder” and “Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening” the next.

The genius of early Soft Machine was their ability to be both sophisticated and vulgar, serious and silly, without being disingenuous. Frank Zappa’s humor was laced with bitter sarcasm, Bonzo Dog Band was a comedy troupe of troubadours, but The Soft Machine was intelligent (in a musical sense) and innocent (in a social/political sense). Where else, for example, will you find such a sweet tune as “As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still” written for a bandmember who just exited the band, or the alphabet sung without a trace of irony? Their music may have been confrontational, but you won’t encounter anything so sharply worded as “Harry, You’re a Beast/What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?”

As impressive as Volume Two is, I don’t believe it to be a timeless work of genius, nor do I find it to be a highly influential work. Even its own members didn’t seem that committed to carrying on with this kind of music. Volume Two is a product of the times, the audible offspring of a unique assembly of like-minded but ultimately individual artists, three amigos on a sonic adventure through the rabbit hole. Some of the broken ground from the first two volumes was picked up for later Soft Machine records, on the solo works of Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt, in Gong, et cetera (i.e., the Canterbury scene), yet it never took root in the rest of rock & roll, remaining in its native soil until it withered along with the rest of the progressive movement.

You could, I suppose, build a monument for the machine from “As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still,” “Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening,” “Hibou, Anemone and Bear” and all the clever bits in between; diehard dadaists have done just that. There is, however, more than a little improvisation in the music that keeps me from calling this calculated art of the highest order. Volume Two didn’t change my world like We’re Only In It For The Money or The White Album, although it did expand my world and for that, Soft Machine, I thank you.

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Original elpee version

Rivmic Melodies
A1. Pataphysical Introduction – Part I (Robert Wyatt) (1:00)
A2. A Concise British Alphabet – Part I (Hugh Hopper, arranged by Robert Wyatt) (0:10)
A3. Hibou, Anemone And Bear (Mike Ratledge/Robert Wyatt) (5:58)
A4. A Concise British Alphabet – Part II (Hugh Hopper, arranged by Robert Wyatt) (0:12)
A5. Hulloder (Hugh Hopper, arranged by Robert Wyatt) (0:52)
A6. Dada Was Here (Hugh Hopper, arranged by Robert Wyatt) (3:25)
A7. Thank You Pierrot Lunaire (Hugh Hopper, arranged by Robert Wyatt) (0:47)
A8. Have You Ever Bean Green? (Hugh Hopper, arranged by Robert Wyatt) (1:23)
A9. Pataphysical Introduction – Part II (Robert Wyatt) (0:50)
A10. Out of Tunes (Mike Ratledge/Hugh Hopper/Robert Wyatt) (2:30)

Esther’s Nose Job
B1. As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still (Mike Ratledge/Robert Wyatt) (2:30)
B2. Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening (Hugh Hopper) (2:30)
B3. Fire Engine Passing With Bells Clanging (Mike Ratledge) (1:50)
B4. Pig (Mike Ratledge) (2:08)
B5. Orange Skin Food (Mike Ratledge) (1:52)
B6. A Door Opens And Closes (Mike Ratledge) (1:09)
B7. 10:30 Returns To The Bedroom (Mike Ratledge/Hugh Hopper/Robert Wyatt) (4:14)

The Players

Hugh Hopper (bass, acoustic guitar, alto), Mike Ratledge (Lowry, Hammond, harpsichord, piano, flute), Robert Wyatt (drums, voice) with Brian Hopper (soprano and tenor saxophone). Produced by The Soft Machine; executive producer: Mike Jeffrey; engineered by George Chkhantz (Chkiantz).

The Pictures

Cover and liner design by Byron Goto/Henry Epstein. Photos by Eric Goto. Back cover photograph (UK version): Paul Misso.

The Plastic

Released on elpee in April 1969 in the UK (Probe, SPB 1002) and the US (ABC/Probe, CPLP-4505).

  1. Re-packaged with Volume One on 2-for-1 2LP in 1973 in the UK (Probe, GTT 2041/2) with gatefold cover.
  2. Re-packaged with Volume One as Architects of Space and Timeon 2LP in 1975 in France (Atlantic, 60113) and Germany (Atco, 60113) with gatefold cover.
  3. Re-issued on elpee in 1987 in Germany (Big Beat, WIKA 58) with gatefold cover.
  4. Re-packaged with Volume Oneon 2-for-1 compact disc in 1989 in the UK and Germany (Big Beat, CDWIKD 920).
  5. Re-issued on compact disc on November 23, 1993 in the US (One Way, ONE-22065).
  6. Re-released on remastered compact disc on July 28, 2009 in the UK (EMI, 5320506-2).
  7. Re-released on clear vinyl elpee in 2010 in the US (Sundazed, LP 5342).
  8. Re-issued on compact disc in 2012 in the US (Sundazed).

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