[Review] Soft Machine: 5 (1972)

Ratledge and company tweak the machine with a couple of new drummers, with mixed results.

Kronomyth 5.0: Take my five, please.

It has, I confess, been some time since I sat down and really listened to a Soft Machine album. The constant chatter of bill collectors, doomsayers and naysayers, and harried cast of characters from the workaday world doesn’t exactly drive me into the arms of difficult space jazz or whatever you would call this phase of the band’s music. Not that 5 (or Fifth to us ordinally folk) isn’t worth the effort, but the fact that it requires an effort at all makes it an album I listen to infrequently.

At this point, I should mention that I’m naturally suspicious of jazz. The blurred lines between innovation and improvisation, art and artifice, fill me with uncertainty. Am I listening to the discovery of a new language or the musical equivalent of speaking in tongues? I suppose I could stop torturing myself over such things and just enjoy the music, but where would the fun be in that? And, yet, each Soft Machine album seems to be less fun than the last, as Mike Ratledge and the group double down (and even double bass down) on the serious side of jazz/rock fusion.

The first side of Five, recorded in 1971, finds the band in mid-metamorphosis with new drummer Phil Howard. Howard plays loose; cymbals splash and crash, rimshots mix with toms, and his rolling style gives the music a psychedelic if improvisational feel. In fact, the entire first side sounds like an impromptu session salvaged from the archives, and Howard proved to be a short-term solution. The second side of music features John Marshall, a veteran of the seminal fusion group Nucleus, whose drumming style is more precise and athletic. It’s a tighter, more deliberate affair that bespeaks the band’s jazz-fusion period as well as anything. Roy Babbington re-appears on side two as well and shares the spotlight with the departing Elton Dean on As If with his bowed bass playing.

The dreamy, spacey feel of Five may be some people’s cup of tea. It isn’t mine. I can dig what the band is doing, but I listen to music to escape, and Five makes me feel boxed in with its claustrophobic sound. On a few tracks (e.g., Drop, The Bone), it sounds as though Elton Dean is running a clarinet through a digital kazoo.

And now for a few random observations. L B O is a drum solo that could be viewed as John Marshall’s musical resume (spoiler: he got the job). Hugh Hopper didn’t impress me as much on this album. Pigling Bland is the album’s most accessible track. “The Bone” reminded me of a bird stuck between two dimensions, singing. In general, Soft Machine sounds like a less musically accomplished version of Weather Report on this album.

Someone will, inevitably, comment on this review to point out how wrong I am, how Fifth is their favorite Soft Machine album, et cetera. And that’s fine. I can’t stress enough that I don’t care much about my own opinion and you shouldn’t either. It’s just one arbitrarily informed opinion in a sea of them.

Original elpee version

A1. All White (Mike Ratledge) (6:06)
A2. Drop (Mike Ratledge) (7:42)
A3. M.C. (Hugh Hopper) (4:57)
B1. As If (Mike Ratledge) (8:02)
B2. L B O (John Marshall) (1:54)
B3. Pigling Bland (Mike Ratledge) (4:24)
B4. The Bone (Elton Dean) (3:29)

CD reissue bonus track
8. All White (take two) (Mike Ratledge)

The Players

Roy Babbington (double bass on side two), Elton Dean (alto sax, saxello, electric piano), Hugh Hopper (bass guitar), Phil Howard (drums on side one), John Marshall (drums on side two), Mike Ratledge (organ, electric piano). Produced by Soft Machine; engineered by Garry Martin; executive producer: Sean Murphy.

The Plastic

Released on elpee in June 1972 in the UK (CBS, S 64086) and the US (Columbia, KC-31604).

  1. Re-issued on compact disc in 1995 in the US (One Way, ONE-26227).
  2. Re-released on expanded, remastered compact disc on February 19, 2007 in the UK (Sony/BMG, 687290) and in 2007 in Japan (Sony, MHCP-1295) with one bonus track.

1 thought on “[Review] Soft Machine: 5 (1972)

  1. I missed you. Six months was quite a long break. Although as luck would have it, I had a crackly Japanese LP of this album. I used a device to fix it this morning. Now it’s good as new.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *