At this point in the band's history, Soft Machine might be considered an example of Theseus' paradox, akin to the original axe that George Washington used to cut down the cherry tree -- original except that the head had been replaced three times and the handle twice. On Softs, Mike Ratledge, the only remaining original bandmember present on Bundles, the group's preceding Harvest LP, was relegated to guest status, contributing synthesizer to only two tracks, "Song of Aeolus" and "Ban-Ban Caliban." Otherwise, keyboard duties now fell completely to Karl Jenkins, who joined the band prior to the recording of Six and had gradually taken over the conceptual reins as the Softs finished their tenure with Columbia and moved over to Harvest. On Softs more than ever before, Soft Machine was Jenkins' band; he composed fully seven of the LP's 11 tracks, making the album a vehicle for his own artistic conception. And yet, as Soft Machine albums go, this one is just fine, thank you. Jenkins had always put his own personal stamp on the material he wrote for the band, but he also retained elements of a Soft Machine style that emerged around the time Ratledge began penning LP side-long opuses on Third: a marriage of modalism and minimalism with simple but memorable themes in layered counterpoint and an occasional backdrop of rippling, echoey overdubbed electric keyboards, giving the music a trippy, trance-inducing quality. Nimble keyboard and reed solos were also an important element of the Soft Machine sound, although, as the band entered its Harvest fusion period, they tended to take a back seat to the work of fleet-fingered electric guitarists, first Allan Holdsworth on Bundles and then John Etheridge here.
With Etheridge proving that Holdsworth wasn't England's only blindingly fast fusion guitar riff-meister, and with new saxophonist Alan Wakeman being a somewhat heftier reedman than Jenkins, the Softs lineup was plenty strong enough in the soloing department, so Jenkins could concentrate on overdubbing an arsenal of keyboards to give the music its overall structure and mood. Meanwhile, the Roy Babbington (bass) and John Marshall (drums) rhythm-section team, intact since Seven, was as fine as ever, kicking the band into overdrive at the drop of a hi-hat. While Softs has plenty to satisfy the Canterbury and jazz-rock fusion fan, another stylistic element -- new age -- can be heard blowing in with the synthesized wind and strings of the slow and lovely "Song of Aeolus." A precarious balance is usually maintained and the music keeps its footing in jazz-rock, although Softs certainly has more polish than grit. Moments of subtlety and understatement, like the pastoral soprano saxophone and acoustic guitar duet of the opening "Aubade" and Etheridge's folk-jazz duet with himself on the album-closing "Etka," are balanced by passages of high drama, or perhaps grandiosity -- so many layers of guitars and keyboards are piled onto the closing of "The Tale of Taliesin" (imagine the Beatles' "I Want You [She's So Heavy]" coda performed by Philip Glass) that one is tempted to shout, "Enough already!" But when the band gets it right -- the careful buildup and breakdown of lovely themes on "Out of Season" and the ethnic fusion-tinged groove of "Ban-Ban Caliban," for example -- Softs soars. The LP is accessible and engaging enough to have broad appeal, and challenging enough to be worthy of the name Soft Machine. [Some decent selections from Softs can also be heard on Tales of Taliesin: The EMI Years Anthology 1975-1981, which also includes selections from Bundles, Alive & Well: Recorded in Paris, and Land of Cockayne.]