Saturday, January 2, 2021

Soft Works - Abracadabra In Osaka (Moonjune, 2020) ****

Tumbling into the rabbit hole of Soft Machine began with Third. It took me a long time to understand how it all came together - from the group's early psychedelic days to the various mutant offspring that began already in the late 70's with Soft Head and Soft Heap, and then later with Soft Mountain, Soft Bounds, and then Soft Works, and finally Soft Machine Legacy.* 

I've enjoyed many, if not all, of these incarnations of the soft groups that Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean spearheaded, except one: Soft Works. Even though 2003 release Abracadabra was the great reunion of Hopper and Dean with long-time drummer John Marshall, and guitar legend Allen Holdsworth, with such a line-up, I expected just a bit more of a 'kick' out of the album. So, my hope was that Abracadabra In Osaka, a double CD documenting a concert by the group back in the early aughts, would fill in the pieces that I felt the studio album missed. I am happy to report it does. 

Elton Dean's unique saxello seems just a little more sour, in a painfully good way, and Hopper and Marshall are just a bit edgier, to my ears. Holdsworth, especially, kicks it up a notch or two. The opening track on both the studio album and this live recording, 'Seven Formally', starts slowly and builds to a boiling point in both cases, but the studio recording's version is softened by synth and lacks that extra bit of crunch that the live version brings. The Hopper penned track 'First Train' similarly fares just a little better on the live recordings, and Holdsworth's solo around the 4-5 min mark reaches an orgasmic intensity. Soft Machine staple 'Kings & Queens' also gets an airing on the live album, which provides Dean essentially a showcase to play a extended, relaxed solo over a suspenseful, familiar background. 

A real plus from this release for me is that I've come to appreciate the studio album better as well. The subtleties come into better contrast and the points where the fusion becomes a bit too fusiony are easier to let pass by. Overall a nice addition to the reincarnated Soft Machine. Then, be sure to check out the latest version of Soft Machine's Live at the Baked Potato, a wonderful documentation of an ever adapting band.

* There are plenty of Hopper/Dean collaborations that did not use the "Soft" prefix as well, so please do not consider this an exhaustive list ... it barely breaks a sweat.

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