Formed in 1966 in Canterbury, England, Soft Machine are one of the few underground bands (or bands in general, really) of the era still performing today. They’re also one of the most influential of them all, having helped shape the genres we know today as psychedelic rock, jazz fusion and progressive rock.
Although none of the founding members are present in the current line-up, the four musicians who rocked London’s Borderline on Friday 17th November are not new to the group either. Drummer John Marshall has played in every one of Soft Machine’s incarnations since 1971, while bassist Roy Babbington and guitarist John Etheridge joined in 1973 and 1975, respectively. Multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis has been with them since 2006.
Anyone who’s a fan of mixing rock and jazz just couldn’t wish for a more magnificent instrumental live music experience than what a fortunate audience witnessed on Friday. Soft Machine were pioneers when they first started and no one has managed to surpass them within their own field since then. The quartet possess the skills of the most proficient classically trained musicians, combined with the talent to fill the air with emotions, in addition to almost otherworldly rhythms and sublime melodies.
The show opened with the classic ‘Bundles’ from 1975. Since they released most of their albums in the 70s, many of the songs were from this era and a lot of them were written by Mike Ratledge, who left the band in 1976. As Etheridge pointed out, Ratledge is not only a great composer but also brilliant at naming tracks, with titles like ‘Chloe and the Pirates’ and ‘The Man Who Waved at Trains’. Also on the setlist were ‘The Tale of Taliesin’, ‘Kings and Queens’ and ‘Hazard Profile (Part 1)’, in addition to a couple of numbers released under the name Soft Machine Legacy, such as ‘In the Back Room’ and ‘Voyage Beyond Seven’. Another highlight of the evening was Travis’s 2007 composition ‘The Relegation of Pluto’.
The power of Etheridge’s virtuosic and heartfelt jazz improvisations played in a clean and often psychedelic tone are simply unrivalled. They are beautifully complemented by Travis’s saxophone and flute solos, ranging from smooth and subtle to wild and explosive, as heard on his recordings with Robert Fripp and Porcupine Tree. He also toured with David Gilmour in 2015. Marshall and Babbington form a majestic rhythm section reminiscent of early-70s King Crimson.
The band’s signature jazzy and progressive sound enriched by avantgarde experimentation has secured them a strong cult following, many of whom were at the Borderline on Friday. Nevertheless, the same sound that has influenced generations of musicians also prevented them from expanding their underground fame to reach mainstream levels. Although they would undoubtedly deserve to be well-known worldwide among both rock and jazz fans, never compromising their unconventional vision is what makes their music truly special.