(All Album Reviews by ffroyd)
Mike Ratledge: Lowrey organ, Fender Rhodes electric piano
Elton Dean: saxello, alto sax, Fender Rhodes electric piano
Hugh Hopper: bass guitar
Phil Howard: drums
It was an interesting time in the history of Soft Machine between the departure of Robert Wyatt and the entrance of John Marshall on the drum stool. In the interim was Australian Phil Howard, and while he never became that well known, made a real racket for a few short months. Losing Wyatt may have been a severe blow to the Machine but Howard more than made up for it with energy and enthusiasm. Brought into the band by Elton Dean and only appearing on half of the album 5, most of the world has yet to hear recordings of the man in a live situation; that is until now.
The recording here was made during the band’s German tour in late 1971 (the exact date and location is not given and probably not known) and shows the entire band on fire to say the least. This is possibly as wild and free as the band would ever get. Playing like a man possessed, Phil Howard propels the band into a territory that they had rarely seen previously. All of the other members follow suit, Elton Dean in particular plays with a reckless abandon that he would probably never match again. This is evidenced from the first track “Neo-Caliban Grides”, a piece from Dean’s first solo record that would appear on many Soft Machine live albums but never with as much heat as they get here. Howard’s polyrhythmic style gets me to thinking there were several drummers on stage and not just him.
There are two representations from the Third album in “Slightly All The Time” and “Out-Bloody-Rageous” where Elton nearly blows his brains out, literally of course. One of my favorites from the disc would be “Drop”, a Ratledge composition with some of the wildest Lowrey organ playing that I’ve ever heard. A wild drum solo entitled “Dark Swing” is followed up by a free jazz freakout “Intropigling” that leads into the final track “Pigling Bland” which would appear on Fifth. All of this plus several more improvisational pieces appear on the CD. It is a true shame that there aren’t more recordings from this version of the band.
While it might not be the cleanest recording ever, Drop is an amazing document of a rarely heard period in the band’s career. Leonardo Pavkovic of Moon June Records has put out an important piece in the Soft Machine puzzle, not just of historic importance but an incredible listen as well. The CD comes in a gorgeous digi-pack with a very detailed essay by Steve Lake. It should go without saying that any serious fan of Soft Machine will want to pick up a copy of this disc. With the passing of Elton Dean a few years ago and Hugh Hopper a few weeks ago, there’s never been a better chance to get better acquainted with this phenomenal group.