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Tales of Taliesin: An Anthology 1975 - 1981

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Album Review

When it comes to Soft Machine, it seems like Karl Jenkins can never catch a break — even here. Open up the booklet accompanying this double-disc compilation taken from the group's Jenkins-led Harvest/EMI years, and you are greeted by the package's largest photograph — of Mike Ratledge. A photo of Ratledge would make perfect sense on any Softs compilation covering the band's entire history, but this comp is about Jenkins more than any other single musician, and, in fact, Ratledge only features on the first five out of 25 tracks here, since he departed after the 1975 Harvest LP Bundles. So how about a Jenkins rather than Ratledge photo, at least this one time? As far as the music — the most important thing here, obviously — and especially Sid Smith's "set the record straight" liner notes are concerned, the comp does a better job, but there are still problems. Smith effectively counterbalances the often prevailing notion that the Jenkins-led Softs were Soft Machine in name only, and when Allan Holdsworth unleashes his utterly relentless guitar solo from Bundles' "Hazard Profile, Pt. 1," the introductory salvo that introduced Holdsworth to his largest audience thus far, you are likely to be as wowed as any mid-'70s Softs fan who was willing to give the band's then-newest lineup a try. And there are certainly key tracks here — "Bundles," "The Tale of Taliesin," "Out of Season," the live "Odds Bullets and Blades, Pts. 1-2" and "Huffin'" — that demonstrate not only the skill of the musicians, but also how Jenkins tailored his composing, with its tricky meters, thematic and melodic sensibilities, and spacy floating synth interludes, to a Soft Machine sound that arguably harked all the way back to the landmark Third. But as is often the case with compilations linked to a specific label above all else, there was apparently a perceived need to touch upon all four of the Softs' Harvest/EMI albums, including 1981's Land of Cockayne, a rather bloated and ponderous effort that saw even fans of Jenkins' '70s Softs work begin to kick around that "in name only" phrase. By featuring four tracks from Land of Cockayne — and also including fully 11 tracks from 1978's Alive & Well CD and its 2010 expanded edition — Bundles and the 1976 John Etheridge-showcasing Softs are arguably given short shrift on Tales of Taliesin. And in fact, some of the few tracks that were included from Bundles and Softs might've been traded out for others ("The Man Who Waved at Trains," "Ban-Ban Caliban") to improve the variety and quality of the comp overall. Still, there is some killer idiosyncratic jazz-rock here, and it's good to see positive attention directed toward a Soft Machine era that is often unjustly dismissed.

Biography

Formed: 1966 in Canterbury, Kent, England

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s

Soft Machine were never a commercial enterprise and indeed still remain unknown even to many listeners who came of age during the late '60s and early '70s, when the group was at its peak. In their own way, however, they were one of the more influential bands of their era, and certainly one of the most influential underground ones. One of the original British psychedelic groups, they were also instrumental in the birth of both progressive rock and jazz-rock. They were also the central foundation of...
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Tales of Taliesin: An Anthology 1975 - 1981, Soft Machine
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