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Album: Soft Machine, The Soft Machine and Volume Two (Polydor)

Despite a reputation second only to Pink Floyd, Soft Machine struggled to make much of an impression outside of a small cognoscenti, until they became a full-blown jazz-rock combo in the 1970s.

This was due partly to their preference for continental locales over Blighty, which meant they were rarely seen north of Watford; and partly to their American record label, which meant that these seminal early albums were available only as expensive imports. Released on CD for the first time, they have more than just novelty period appeal, incorporating some of the more unusual musical strategies of even that "anything goes" era. On the first album, Robert Wyatt's unashamedly English vocals and jazz-influenced drumming, Kevin Ayers' unorthodox bass style and Mike Ratledge's angry-wasp organ lines combined like a more refined, less brazen version of what The Nice were attempting, including forays into minimalist repetition and odd time-signatures (while still remaining clearly pop), while the addition of sax (and pataphysics) on Volume Two nudged their tight-riffing sound closer to Zappa's Mothers, prefiguring the abandonment of any pop pretensions on subsequent releases. To these ears, they never sounded better.

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