Beginning in 1966, the Soft Machine were at the forefront of the British psych and prog movements, backing up Syd Barrett’s first solo album, playing with Andy Summers before he joined the Police, and even touring with Jimi Hendrix. Since the late ’60s, the Machine has gone through at least six distinct eras, even changing its name a few times along the way—first to Soft Ware, then Soft Works, and, in 2004, to Soft Machine Legacy.
But as of 2015, the band has once again become Soft Machine, a name inspired by William Burroughs’ term for the human body. So how does it feel for them to re-become themselves?
“It feels good,” says Theo Travis, the band’s woodwind and piano player. “It feels real.”
Last September, Soft Machine released Hidden Details, their first album under their original moniker since 1981’s Land of Cockayne. Throughout Hidden Details, the band sounds as amalgamated and inspired as ever, giving both their jazz and rock chops a heavy workout. Focused equally on improvisation and composition, the album is a mix of new songs and reworkings of classics, which have been transformed through decades of live play. The experiment works, most notably on the excellent “The Man Who Waved At Trains” from 1975’s Bundles—a slippery, angular jazz tune that’s original minute-and-a-half length has here been expanded to five (with Travis’s flute now on the melody).
As always, Hidden Details is purposefully mixed stylistically, and many may have a hard time categorizing the album. Leading with an absolutely filthy guitar riff from John Etheridge, the title track opener starts off sounding like Black Sabbath before settling into a warm, mid-tempo fusion. Third track “Ground Lift” is stratospheric in its passages of free improvisation, while “Heart Off Guard” sounds like the darker side of English folk run through a film noir filter.
“It’s kind of the jazzy end of the progressive world, or the progressive end of the jazzy world,” Travis muses on the album. A moment later, he settles. “It’s probably more of the jazzy end of the progressive world. The improvisation has a comfortable mix with the composition of the more progressive, out-there, left-field rock.”
Whichever end of the prog/jazz spectrum it most represents, Soft Machine’s music has always been something that could only emerge out of the specific soft machines in the band, and Hidden Details is no exception.
“It’s like a big melting pot,” Travis says. “The four of us, we have overlapping taste, but we have very different tastes. It’s where we meet that the music happens.”
More than anything, the band is just happy to be themselves again.
“To have an album where it says in big letters “Soft Machine,” it makes it very clear that it is Soft Machine,” Travis says, sounding at ease. “It has a greater importance to it, it feels like the stakes are higher. Soft Machine Legacy sounds a bit like a tribute band. It could be everyone in it was a key member of Soft Machine, but people don’t have a relationship to Soft Machine Legacy. They haven’t been listening to Soft Machine Legacy for 40 years People don’t have that same kind of feeling about it.”
Though they dropped the word from their name, the concept of legacy is still central to the band’s work. With more than 50 years of material to draw from, Soft Machine makes a point to embody their entire career live.
“If we like a track from the repertoire and it works well live, we’ll do it,” Travis says. “The only thing we don’t do is we don’t do any vocals, so we don’t go back to the first album.”
As soon as these words leave his mouth, he corrects himself.
“Although we did actually rehearse ‘Joy of a Toy’ [from 1968’s The Soft Machine], and we were talking of doing it. If you’re a Soft Machine fan of any of the eras, we do them. Something for everyone.”
Soft Machine performs at 9 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 25 at Flynn’s Cabaret & Steakhouse, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $35. 335-2800.