Soft Machine Legacy: Burden of Proof
MoonJune Records

One of the smartest moves made by drummer John Marshall, bassist Roy Babbington, guitarist John Etheridge, and saxophonist, flutist, and electric pianist Theo Travis was to call themselves Soft Machine Legacy rather than stick with the more familiar name associated with the band in its earlier incarnations, ones that famously included Robert Wyatt, Mick Ratledge, Karl Jenkins, and Allan Holdsworth. In doing so, the present-day iteration unburdens itself of unreasonably great expectations and allows the musicians to simply play minus the historical baggage. In other words, Soft Machine Legacy doesn't need to worry about matching the groundbreaking accomplishments of the eariler band but can simply keep its spirit alive by producing music of integrity and superior quality.

At the same time, the involvement of Marshall and Babbington in the current group draws a literal connection from the present to the past, given their contributions to seminal Soft Machine releases such as Seven and Bundles, and much the same goes for Etheridge, who recorded two albums with the band, Softs in 1976 and Alive & Well: Recorded in Paris two years later. For his part, Travis brings an impressive background of his own to the project, with the saxophonist having played with Gong, Porcupine Tree, and Bill Nelson (among others), and partnered with guitarist Robert Fripp in Travis and Fripp since 2008 (Travis's Burden of Proof track “Black and Crimson” would seem to be an obvious nod to King Crimson's Starless and Bible Black).

Burden of Proof, the band's first studio release since 2007's Steam, sees the current outfit in stellar form and covering a wide range of material, from blues workouts to tracks stylistically evocative of the band during earlier times. Etheridge and Travis acquit themselves admirably on the set, as does Marshall, who, decades removed from his playing in the earlier outfit, shows himself to be a formidable player throughout, someone who has chops aplenty (look no farther than “The Brief,” a short duet with Travis, for proof) but is never overbearing.

Quintessential jazz-rock, Etheridge's opening title track drapes a series of ominous melodic statements over a swinging shuffle in the best Soft Machine tradition. And with Babbington's walking lines as anchor, both the guitarist and saxophonist make good on the opportunity to establish their presence early on with sharp, to-the-point solo statements. Its dream-like swoon enhanced by Travis's flute playing, “Kings & Queens” also calls to mind the earlier band, literally so in that it's a cover of a composition Hugh Hopper contributed to the band but stylistically so, too, in the piece's ponderous melodic character and key changes.

Etheridge takes full advantage of the space accorded to him as one of the two front-line soloists. In the aptly titled “Voyage Beyond Seven,” he plunges into Frisell-like territory, his raw attack amplified with effects, whereas the brief solo setting “Kitto” finds him waxing lyrically. The earthy “Pie Chart” demonstrably showcases both his and Travis's blues-soaked sides, while “Fallout” (its theme similar in part to Traffic's “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” from 1971's The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys) shows the band isn't afraid of taking on freeform improvs when the mood strikes. If there's an album misstep, it's either “Pump Room,” whose rock groove seems a tad too unadventurous for a band of this calibre, or “Green Cubes,” an improv that would benefit from a little more direction. Even so, don't let the Soft Machine Legacy name fool you; Burden of Proof shows the band's no nostalgia act trading shamelessly on the past but a vital outfit clearly focused on the here and now.

May 2014