Soft Machine: Drop (2009)
The departure of Robert Wyatt from the drum stool in Soft Machine and the arrival of Phil Howard could have been a potentially fraught moment in the band's evolution back in the early '70s. Until now the only documentation of Howard's time with the band was on one side of Fifth (Sony/BMG, 1972), which was no more than a tantalizing glimpse of the direction towards which the band was evolving. This live material from the band's German tour in late 1971 is a much better indicator of where it was going, and to put it simply it was heading even further out than it had been before.
That's not to say that the degree of continuity between the band with Wyatt and the band with Howard is pronounced because it isn't, and whilst the two drummers shared an elastic conception of time it's clear that both were committed to a creative, ever-evolving playing conception. That wouldn't have counted for much if it hadn't been for the fact that they were in the company of like-minded souls, and here the music rolls and boils in a way that guarantees that audiences didn't receive the same fare two nights running. Keyboardist Mike Ratledge's "All White" is alive with group tension, with Elton Dean's long, darkly elegant saxello lines acting almost as an anchor in the midst of Howard's hyperactivity.
Set against that, Ratledge's title track serves almost as calm amidst the storm, although again Howard's percussive maelstrom comes on like the work of a perpetually restless soul. Against that, Hugh Hopper's bass often tends to take a back seat, but the point remains that without his work the music would lack internal structure. That point is reinforced by the seamless segue from "M.C." into "Out-Bloody-Rageous," which in compositional terms is taken relatively straight, albeit with more fire than was sometimes the case, as with previous live documents of the band with Wyatt. The twin-keyboard passage here, with Dean at the electric piano, is all subtlety, however, with Howard the one either allowed the most room, or the most committed to rhythmic drive.
Hopper's fuzz bass comes into its own on the opening of "As If," where four instrumental voices vie equally for attention before things become relatively tranquil, with Ratledge and Dean's deft keyboard and reed washes provoking Howard into some of his softest work before he ups the momentum even whilst his colleagues commit to lighter, less emphatic music. The dark ambience of the piece might almost have been written with such resulting tension in mind.
Track Listing: Neo Caliban Grides; All White; Slightly All the Time; Drop; M.C.; Out-Bloody-Rageous; As If; Dark Swing; Intropigling; Pigling Bland.
Personnel: Mike Ratledge: Lowrey organ, Fender Rhodes electric piano; Elton Dean: saxello, alto saxophone, Fender Rhodes electric piano; Hugh Hopper: bass; Phil Howard: drums.