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Soft Machine: Switzerland 1974

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You have to be an extremely confident unit-and one mother of a band-to turn up at a prestigious mega-gig like the Montreux Jazz Festival and drop a set of new material on the audience like the newly rejiggered Soft Machine did in July 1974. Turns out that material would go on to comprise 1975’s Bundles, a fusion juggernaut, but hey, props where props are due. And there should be no shortage of them with this set, as newly acquired guitarist Allan Holdsworth works himself in the Machine fold with the most well stocked of sonic quivers.

His riffs come from all directions, and opener “Hazard Profile” is a veritable Encyclopedia Britannica of fusion technique. Hammer-ons marry up with staccato fuzz, which eddies out into needle-like lines of extreme dexterity and delicacy. Enviable stuff in and of itself, but integrated into the band’s churning rhythmic approach-like they’re trying to outpace Bitches Brew-we have one mighty, thudding beast to contend with. A lot of that beast’s ferocity, as it were, comes courtesy of John Marshall’s kit work, as on the clattering “Land of the Bag Snake,” the titular creature being made to sound like it is thumping its way down electric stairs.

“The Man Who Waved at Trains” shows just how well the group could turn ferocity into finesse, with Mike Ratledge’s keyboard work trading in funky blues and Chick Corea-type shimmerings, and Holdsworth’s guitar taking on the aspect of a plucked violin. “Riff II” is the great growler here, some chunky bombast that explodes into a climatic rave-up punctuated by an impossibly long drum roll. There’s a touch of Floyd, too, in “The Floating World,” which has the same kind of cosmic whimsy, and the reprise of “The Man Who Waved at Trains” even features implied sound effects: a guitar mimicking springs snapping and hammers hitting on the gears of clocks.

The accompanying DVD of the gig is all that’s turned up, footage-wise, for this lineup, so savor that, but the live set doesn’t really require visuals. This is wild, oft-loud, preternatural Pied Piper-type music, with Karl Jenkins’ soprano sax on the concluding “Penny Hitch” all but taking your hand and pulling you down into the record. Holdsworth’s solo is pure gossamer atop the groove, with the clean inflections of Smokin’ at the Half Note-era Wes Montgomery. The crowd clearly gets that something beyond even standard top-gig fare has gone down, and everyone, at the end, loses it. Quite the banner achievement for this group-cum-collective Piper, and for this resulting beckoner of a live package.

Originally Published