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Soft Machine - Middle Earth Masters

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Artist: Soft Machine

Album: Middle Earth Masters

Label: Cuneiform

Review date: Oct. 17, 2006

Cuneiform Records has provided my most profound Soft Machine revelation to date, and I do not say this lightly. I’ve been following three Soft Machine series: Cuneiform's, Voiceprint’s and Hux’s. To this point, each has found a niche – Cuneiform focuses primarily on live radio broadcasts and unreleased material associated with the 1969-71 lineups; Hux presented a beautiful four-disc compendium of the group’s BBC sessions from 1967-1974 and some discs of live BBC material from Soft-associated projects; Voiceprint provided glimpses into the early group’s working methods, releasing many interesting but flawed documents of Robert Wyatt's and Kevin Ayers' Wilde Flowers project, before the two moved on to Soft Machine in 1966.

Now, Cuneiform drops a bona fide and fairly well-recorded show from September 1967 at the fabled Middle Earth club. Mike King spends much of the notes in a breathless description of the travails that went into the discovery, initial rejection and ultimate remastering of this gem, and the stereo sound is clear, punchy and quite listenable. The lineup is the Ayers/Wyatt/Mike Ratledge aggregate – Ayers playing bass and guitar while singing a few of his early tunes; Ratledge perhaps the set’s most consistently shocking participant on keys; Wyatt the typically frenetic drummer and vocalist of the period. Ratledge makes a positively huge sound, and we finally see what a vastly important role he played in this trio, providing much of the psychedelics that made the Softs legendary. His organ solo shimmers, rumbles and roars, as multicolored as the accompanying light show would have been; the other two often have their work cut out for them following in his luminous wake.

The repertoire is largely first album material, ripe with even more energy than the studio versions that were eventually released. The rendition of “Why Are We Sleeping?” rocks so hard as to be disturbing, and the riff-heavy “We Did it Again” exudes as much punk as psychedelia. We also get another early version of “Clarence in Wonderland,” the Ayers classic that was recorded by both Soft Machine and an early Gong assemblage.

Listening to Middle Earth Masters is an exhilarating exhausting experience, but one that really gives a clear picture of how these seminal artists sounded, live, in their first flowering. The later lineups have been very well served on recordings, and it is high time we had such a satisfying glimpse into 1967. For historical importance, this release will be tough to beat for some time.

By Marc Medwin

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