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Album Review

Rocket blasting through the stratosphere or train wreck back down on earth? Truth be told, Drop is probably somewhere in the middle; no reasonably well-recorded live Soft Machine CD featuring Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper, and Elton Dean — and that's what Drop is — will be an unmitigated disaster. But as might be expected, Steve Lake's liner notes for this set, recorded on a German tour in fall 1971 and released on the Moonjune label nearly four decades later in the waning days of 2008, suggest that the version of the band heard here, featuring Phil Howard as a replacement for Robert Wyatt on drums, streaked across the sky rather than tumbled off the tracks. Howard was retained in the drummer's chair for only half a studio album back then (Fifth, recorded a short while after the music heard here), and Lake seems to feel that a potential exciting direction went unrealized due to Howard's early departure. Well, perhaps with Howard as drummer for a while longer, Soft Machine could have realized a wilder and freer form of expression instead of "the shelter of compositional structure and arrangements," as Lake puts it. A tornado of activity to be sure, Phil Howard crashes and bashes nearly nonstop here, his omnipresent ride cymbal washing across nearly everything. The versions of "All White," "Drop," "M.C.," "As If," and "Pigling Bland" (which would later appear in more restrained fashion on Fifth) and "Slightly All the Time" and "Out-Bloody-Rageous" (from Third) are filled with fiery energy and some of the most committed playing the Softs ever put on tape (some particularly ear-shattering, note-bending stuff coming from keyboardist Ratledge), if "committed" means essentially the same thing as "intense." By that measure, Drop is a resounding success. Moonjune is to be commended for its archival Soft Machine efforts, not to mention many stellar releases in the post-Canterbury era by both old heroes and new artists who continue to brighten up the music world well into the 21st century. And completists may very well want to plug in a gap in their Soft Machine shelves by snapping up Drop, the one and only Soft Machine album featuring Phil Howard on drums from beginning to end.


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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