Soft Machine

Floating World Live

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With the release of Floating World Live, as of 2006 there were four CDs on the market -- two studio and two live discs -- representing the peak of Soft Machine's "guitar fusion" years. Bundles and Softs (studio) and Floating World Live and British Tour '75 (live) are all recommended to anyone for whom jazz-rock fusion doesn't cause a breakout in hives, with the live discs capturing inspired performances and having an edge over the studio efforts. The expertly recorded Floating World is clear evidence that Allan Holdsworth was just what Soft Machine needed in the mid-'70s. By the time this live German show had been (partially) captured by Radio Bremen in January 1975, Holdsworth had been with the band for slightly over a year, and the Softs had already recorded Bundles with him. This is a killer live set, and Holdsworth's lightning-fast scalar runs, wide-interval leaps, and expressive note-bending over the band's vamps and composer Karl Jenkins' chordal changes -- not to mention his prominent positioning in the mix -- make Floating World a must-hear for any fans of the blurry-fingered axeman. He plays a touch of beautiful violin as well. No wonder jaws were dropping all around -- and apparently including the jaws of his bandmates, for Floating World sounds rather less like the work of a fully collaborative band and more like a live date by a guitarist-led fusion outfit than the British Tour '75 recording from later that same year after John Etheridge had joined the group following Holdsworth's departure.

The flow of the overall Floating World set is at least partially to blame for any slight comparative shortcomings, particularly during the first half but redeemed by some inspired playing from all quarters at the conclusion. The group seems to have barely gotten underway when Roy Babbington's bass solo, "Ealing Comedy," makes an appearance; it's a great showcase including some Canterbury-esque fuzz in the mold of the pioneering Hugh Hopper, but its placement so soon in the proceedings somewhat derails the initial momentum of "Bundles" and "Land of the Bag Snake." And midway through, it doesn't help that "Hazard Profile," the Jenkins multi-part composition that would soon introduce Holdsworth to flabbergasted listeners upon the release of Bundles, fades out after less than five minutes -- that's where the radio station placed its commercial break. (Curious listeners are encouraged to check out the 2015 Cuneiform CD/DVD set Switzerland 1974, which presents a version of the complete "Hazard Profile" from a July 1974 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival and, in fact, an overall set order more like Bundles itself.) Both the Floating World and British Tour CDs feature solo Mike Ratledge synthesizer and John Marshall drum'n'gong interludes -- here respectively named "North Point" and "J.S.M." -- but on this disc they further tilt the balance away from the full-band music and contribute to the feeling that Soft Machine had become a vehicle for solo statements with Holdsworth leading the way.

Still, this is a vital document proving that the Softs were capable of some truly magnificent music during the mid-'70s -- and they were still evolving, testing the waters in live performance on a funked-up jam like "Riff III" that would later develop into "Ban-Ban Caliban" after Holdsworth bailed and Etheridge climbed aboard. Floating World Live reveals Soft Machine caught up in the excitement of a new direction thanks to an extraordinary guitarist who provided the band with a much welcome shot in the arm. The new direction heard here would continue with Etheridge blazing his own impossibly fast trails on the six-string, and Soft Machine would experience a final peak -- as demonstrated on British Tour '75, Softs, and Alive & Well: Recorded in Paris -- before dissolution and mediocrity truly began setting in.

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