Random Pull: Soft Machine — Third

News / Random Pull / Special Features / July 22, 2015

In Random Pulls, the Modern Vinyl staff digs blindly through their collections to reveal the ins and outs of their musical history and tastes. Want to go digging through your own collection? Submit a writeup of 100-200 words and a photo of the record’s most interesting visual aspect to news@modern-vinyl.com and it may be part of a weekly wrap-up.

Reissue (2011), Originally Released (1970)
Music On Vinyl – MOVLP183

The Canterbury Scene was like music’s version of cinema’s Dogme95. Only a select few artists participated in the movement and it quickly fizzled before it could really make any lasting impact in its medium, but boy, did it contain some fantastic examples to make headway into classic territory.

Artists who sprouted out of this English city attempted to creatively blend psychedelic and progressive rock, jazz, and electronic to make this weird hybrid — one that sounded familiar of the late-60s/early ’70s and in the vein of groups like King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull — but one that was just slightly off in its approach, enough to become an arena for experimentation and avant-garde tendencies, even more-so than the ones exhibited by the bands previously stated. Perhaps, then, that is why the artists involved in the scene — Caravan, Hatfield and the North, along with the artist which this Random Pull centers itself on, Soft Machine — were either quick to change their tune later in their career to stay in the game or to continue with the movement’s inevitable “dated” detriment and fade away as footnotes in music’s history.

Soft Machine did the former action mentioned, producing three-to-four albums ingrained in the Canterbury Scene’s penchant for avant-garde rock before moving on to other, albeit derivative, forms of rock in their later period. That isn’t to say their later albums aren’t good, but they just can’t compare to anything like their third album from 1970, appropriately titled Third.

This is Soft Machine’s masterpiece: A bravura double album whose four tracks take up each side, encapsulating the multiple genres of the era and, in essence, becoming the best album to come out of the Canterbury Scene and into classic status. You had something as wildly experimental as Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew over here in the U.S., but Third is not oft-forgot. Its weave through avant-garde jazz and psychedelic rock was incredibly slick and timely, whose arrangements were identifiers to the mightily hot progressive rock genre but on a shallower (and quite honestly, more accessible) tilt.

The instrumentation on display is simply stupefying, with keyboardist Mike Ratledge crafting complex and emotional melodies to befit band leader Robert Wyatt’s ambitious take on pretty much every instrument, including vocals. There’s a vivacity to its nature in it being experimental, but there’s surely a restraint in its structure, allowing listeners to actually comprehend the madness on record and revealing the kind of perfectionism that no one would have suspected from the group otherwise. With Jimmy Hastings’ additions on flute and clarinet, Hugh Hopper’s bass guitar, and a sense of wonderment throughout, it’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like to witness a group striking such gold.

Third is downright an amazing trip into explorative rock and a little bit of a history lesson for those interested. It also happened to have been one of my “white whales” as far as records go, as I had never seen it available in record stores, even used copies. It was one of those “let’s stumble into Amoeba Records” days when I happened to be looking and picked up the Music On Vinyl, 180-gram edition (the only copy that was there), which, given Music On Vinyl’s excellent quality standards, has the remastered album in its bassy, layered, and crystal clear glory.

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David Fisch
David Fisch is a Partner and Producer at LA Music Blog and a contributor to Modern Vinyl. When he isn't spending most of his time listening to his latest vinyl pick-up or discovering new music on streaming services, he is a filmmaker, photographer, and podcast host.

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