Soft Machine – Bundles: Remastered and Expanded Edition: Album Review

The iconic eighth album from Soft Machine, Bundles, with its focus on jazz-rock, gets a welcome reissue. 

Release date: 26th August 2022

Label: Cherry Red Records / Esoteric Recordings

Format:  CD 

Bundles was the eighth album by Soft Machine and came out in 1975. The band was one of the key bands of the Canterbury scene, which has become associated with progressive rock. The Canterbury scene embraced a very diverse range of artists, including Caravan, Hatfield and the North, and National Health, to name just a few.

The original line up of Soft Machine included a collection of legendary musicians: Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen (who went on to form Gong) and Mike Ratledge. By the time of the Bundles album, Mike Ratledge on keyboards, was the only original band member remaining. He was joined on the Bundles album by Karl Jenkins (oboe, soprano saxophone, and keyboards), Roy Babbington (bass), John Marshall (drums), and the extraordinary guitar player, Allan Holdsworth. Allan Holdsworth’s playing in fact put the electric guitar front and centre of much of the soloing on the album, a significant evolution in the Soft Machine sound. All these musicians had previously played in the jazz and rock fusion band Nucleus, established by composer and trumpet player Ian Carr. This gives a musical clue to the new jazz-rock direction this album established for Soft Machine. On this remastered and expanded edition of the album, at the core of the excellent music on offer, is the five-part dazzling musical suite, Hazard Profile. A composition written by Karl Jenkins.

Hazard Profile, Part One opens the album with a classic jazz-rock guitar riff, accompanied by atmospheric flourishes from Mike Ratledge on the organ. John Marshall’s drumming is simply stunning, with some great funk-based percussive patterns and splashing cymbals. Allan Holdsworth’s lengthy guitar solo is thrillingly innovative, comfortably changing gear and pace with an irresistible melodic underpinning. Part Two (Toccatina), in contrast, is a short piano led piece with a beautiful pastoral feel. 

The short Part Three, clocking in at just over thirty seconds, nicely sets up Part Four, and has the majestic charm of Focus, with its soaring central musical motif. Part Four flows naturally from this and takes Soft Machine into Frank Zappa-like precision ensemble playing. 

The concluding Part Five delivers a tour de force darting synthesizer solo by Mike Ratledge, over a fast-paced shuffle rhythm, where Roy Babbington’s bass and John Marshall’s drums play some fantastic parts, full of tricky percussive accents. This then is a wholly impressive musical suite full of contrasts and immersive musical nuances. 

Gone Sailing which follows on, provides a gentle acoustic guitar interlude, demonstrating Alan Holdsworth’s versatility as a guitarist. While the title track Bundles features some of his most intuitive and expressive guitar playing, reminiscent of John McLaughlin’s incendiary playing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Peff features Karl Jenkins reed playing, possibly electronically treated. It works well in this jazz-rock setting and takes the listener back to early Roxy Music and Andy Mckay’s expressive use of the oboe and saxophone. It is a great flowing piece, underpinned by John Marshall’s deft rhythms and polyrhythmic patterns.

The final track, The Floating World, has a wonderful ambient feel. Quite remarkably, it has the tangible quality of an artist painting a rural landscape in sound. The ethereal sound gently emits from your speakers and fills up the room. 

This edition also comes with a second disc, containing a live performance, recorded in October 1975, at Nottingham University. By that point, Allan Holdsworth had departed and been replaced by guitarist John Etheridge. It features live renditions of much of the material from Bundles. One of the highlights to check out is an early live version of Ban-Ban Caliban that would appear on the 1976 album Softs. Over its nine minutes plus there is some frenetic dynamic playing going on across the band, that must have been incredible to experience live.

This is an impressive reissue by Cherry Red Records/Esoteric Recordings, of a perhaps unfairly overlooked album in the Soft Machine canon. The sound reproduction is crisp and involving, and the accompanying booklet informative and interesting about this period in Soft Machine’s history.

Here is a video of trailer of Soft Machine performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974, with Allan Holdsworth still in the band at that point:

You can find Soft Machine here: Website

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