Yes, Soft Machine was the band most responsible for transforming late ‘60s psychedelia into that critically maligned beast known as progressive rock. If your conception of prog is restricted to silly images of pretentious 20-minute suites with flute solos, Live at Henie Onstad Art Centre 1971 serves as a revelatory display of the avant garde experimentalism and exquisite jazz-influenced instrumentation that made Soft Machine one of the genre’s exemplary acts.
This latest Soft Machine live release documents two sets performed at Norway’s Henie Onstad Art Centre, featuring the band’s classic lineup of Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Elton Dean, and Hugh Hopper in top form. Contained on individual discs, each set is an assemblage of assorted Soft Machine compositions combined into seamless wholes, performed using only the group’s stage amplification. The first disc is characterized by a driving intensity, dominated by insistent drumming, squealing saxophone, and keyboards verging on the atonal, that often rocks quite hard. Compared to the first installment’s relative consistency, the second disc is more of a journey that hews closer to the group’s jazz inclinations. Beginning with the claustrophobic free jazz cacophony of “Neo Caliban Grides”, “Out-Bloody-Rageous” opens the second disc’s set up via a winding groove that gives way to a broader spaciousness for the group to play around in through several songs. The album concludes superbly with the caterwauling sax and thrusting rhythms of encore piece “Noisette”. Throughout, the sound quality of this release is simply stunning, the result of ambient recording techniques and the Art Centre’s own studio setup.
Just as rewarding as the performance itself is the bonus CD-ROM. Included in lieu of traditional liner notes, the multimedia CD-ROM contains the expansive essay The Soft Machine Sound: An Electronic Acoustic Experience Examined, which ties together elements ranging from a history of electronic instruments to a complete transcript of a 1970 Soft Machine appearance on BBC Radio 3 into a detailed analysis of the group’s relationship with sound in both live and studio contexts. The total multi-disc package is a feast for audiophiles and an engrossing document of Soft Machine as prime purveyors of heady, experimental rock music.