Listeners might be justifiably wary of a band with the word "Legacy" in its title, perhaps surmising that the group in question might be rooted a bit too strongly in the past. And in the case of Soft Machine, the group at its very best -- during the late '60s and early '70s -- confounded listeners by breaking from its own past with each album release, arguably throwing out its own nascent legacy (not to mention bandmembers) on a continual basis. In that sense, one might conclude that this 21st century band featuring Softs alumni might best capture some of the earlier group's spark and spirit by ignoring the legacy question entirely. Of course, the issue is one of balance, building on a foundation of great music even if that music is decades old, while continuing to chart new directions that are exciting and unpredictable in the present moment -- and that's exactly what happens on Steam, Soft Machine Legacy's 2007 release on MoonJune Records. Bassist Hugh Hopper, drummer John Marshall, guitarist John Etheridge, and saxophonist/flutist Theo Travis (in the difficult position of stepping into the spot formerly occupied by sadly departed saxman Elton Dean) are mindful of Soft Machine's history, and the listener certainly hears echoes (literally) of the Softs in the looping effects, fuzz bass, rhythmic inventiveness, melodic accessibility, fiery soloing, and general spirit of adventurousness. But there is also something new here: a cohesiveness and single-minded sense of purpose that elevates not only the group's "tunes," but also its approach to collective improvisation. The more straight-ahead jazz-rock material is handled capably enough and Steam can be recommended on that basis alone, but what truly perks up the ears are the several improv tracks sandwiched between the jazz-rockers, introducing a new dimension yet somehow fitting seamlessly into the whole. Following the capable but somewhat predictable post-Canterbury jazz-rock exercises "Footloose" and "The Steamer," "The Big Man" hits the listener with Etheridge's chunky distorted guitar chords that tip toward post-grunge, as Travis uses his array of electronic effects to harmonically split the notes from his soprano sax and the band heads into a murky, fuzzy swamp of sounds before the instruments emerge into an improvisational interlude and the tune simply collapses and dissipates -- and it's fantastic! What began as entirely competent -- even passionate -- jazz-rock is suddenly exploded, starting from a new place and never quite touching down in the familiar.
"The Big Man" is followed by a beautiful, lyrical version of "Chloe and the Pirates" from Soft Machine's Six, and while the band is undoubtedly looking to the past here, the track is lovely and dreamlike, and a perfect palate-cleanser after the preceding track's sonic outbursts. The bright "In the Back Room" has Marshall and Hopper locked in a funky backbeat behind a unison theme cranked out by Travis (on tenor) and Etheridge, and the tune is a fine vehicle for the guitarist to unleash some typically fleet-fingered soloing over the top, followed by some soulful wailing from Travis before an extended vamp featuring multiple saxes takes over and rides into the sunset. This is a fun and perhaps somewhat lightweight tune, but once again the band defies easy expectations with "The Last Day," a return to free-form territory. Travis' skittering looped flute, Hopper's thick fuzz bass, and Marshall's rolling drumwork set an expansive mood before the bandmembers coalesce in spectacular fashion around a mid-tempo groove and brief thematic statement that is simple but dramatic, ending so quickly that the listener is hungry for more. "Firefly" is a jaunty, crisply swinging vehicle for Travis' stellar flutework, with Marshall's brief drum solo leading into tight unison riffing from everyone; the unpredictable suitelike structure here presents new thematic developments and another opportunity for Etheridge to cut loose before the number again heads into a free-form conclusion. Travis' flute remains prominent in "So English," with a free-floating intro (indeed recollecting "The Floating World" from Bundles) filled with loops and sound effects and setting a spacy mood -- but messing things up nicely around the edges with a range of tones and textures that are a bit more impolite than Karl Jenkins might have liked. Riffs and licks sail about over a spacious drone, drawing the listener deeper into extraterrestrial dialogues as Travis' soprano takes over a lead role with Etheridge following his every move and Hopper's monster bass and Marshall's accents staking out subterranean regions -- the energy flows away and Travis is left alone to wrap up the adventure with a subtle and lovely coda. "Dave Acto" follows, and with Etheridge's power chords leading into a nearly heavy metal unison vamp with Hopper, pounding drums from Marshall, and Travis' entry on muscular tenor, it is clear that Soft Machine Legacy are a band that means business. "Dave Acto" is pure get-down heaviosity, but Soft Machine Legacy are saving a powerful punch -- of an entirely different sort -- for the finale: "Anything to Anywhere," penned by Travis (who by now has definitely earned his entry into a band with "Soft Machine" in the title), is a perfect summation, catchy and fun, light in spirit, and with the kind of circular, insistent yet unpredictable vamp that marked some of the best writing of the Softs' jazz-rock period. With a killer hook, a spectacular and dramatic solo from Etheridge, lovely soprano work and looping effects from Travis, and crisp navigation of the rhythmic line from Hopper and Marshall, "Anything to Anywhere" has it all, in a concise package that indeed sums up a monumental legacy while demonstrating continued relevance to the present day and, indeed, the future.