Soft Machine – Third (1970, CBS)
When one wants to wax lyrical about progressive rock (“prog” for the lay-person), one inevitably hones in on Kent and focuses an even more discerning eye on the wee ville of Canterbury. For good reason—the southeastern hamlet projected the likes of Daevid Allen, Kevin Ayers, Steve Hillage, Robert Wyatt, et al. to the top of the art rock heap and in the process, spawned a number of prog-rock linchpins and a slew of lesser imitators. Of the lot, Soft Machine is a consummate example of both the superlatives and excesses of ye olde prog scene. SM’s third release, the unerringly titled Third, is well and truly an archetypal document of Canterbury Rock City. Two long playing —and I mean long (the shortest track clocks at 18:12)— wax discs of dense fusion jams. It isn’t Bitches Brew, nowhere close. It’s not Mahavishnu either. Just the same, the Machine throw down the fucking gauntlet and happily conflate rock and jazz, without wholly blurring their respective contours. The opener, “Facelift,” careens menacingly, threatening to derail until Mike Ratledge’s mangled farfisa gives way to a jack-knife into a bubbling vat of heady jamming. Along with “Slightly All the Time” on the reverse, the quartet show that they know dynamics, they know how to play, and aren’t put off by being a bit self-indulgent. First audition of disc 2’s opener, “Moon in June,” with Bobby Wyatt ad libbing about sex and sun tanning in New York is pretty disorienting and may prompt one to lift the stylus and call this prog foray done and dusted. Do exercise restraint, as Wyatt sensibly does the same at around the 9:30 mark and the band get on with it and see it through on the closer “Out-Bloody-Rageous.” This ain’t your postwar AM radio art rock fixture; oh no, unlike the Yes back-catalogue or the 2112’s to follow, this is some self-indulgence that pay dividends and takes somewhere you actually wanna’ go.