Soft Machine: Bundles – Expanded Edition

Remastered version of the 1974 jazz-rock classic with Holdsworth is repackaged with a 1975 gig from Nottingham University with John Etheridge

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The classic album from the jazz-rock group Soft Machine, recorded at the height of their second incarnation, is now available in this remastered edition by Esoteric Records, expanded with a second disc. A box set titled The Harvest Years 1975-1978, also from Esoteric Records, was released and reviewed in Jazz Journal in 2019, and it is the same remastered version of Bundles that is released here, with the addition of a live concert recorded in 1975, the same year the album was originally released.

The remastered version of Bundles is sharp and crisp, with the blistering high-energy tracks demonstrating the full range of the group’s musical palette. Allan Holdsworth’s guitar leads across the five parts of Hazard Profile, and Karl Jenkins and Mike Ratledge’s keyboard and piano arrangements create intense, multilayered tracks. There are also slower, more jazz-influenced tracks such as The Man Who Waved At Trains, with Jenkins in unison with Ratledge, which blends into the more uptempo Peff, culminating in a psychedelic crescendo with a repeated guitar riff and synthesiser meltdown, which itself fades into John Marshall’s drum solo, Four Gongs Two Drums. Bundles closes with a notably folk-influenced track, The Floating World.

The second disc features the band’s 11 October 1975 concert at Nottingham University, previously available on an album titled British Tour ’75. Holdsworth had left and was replaced by John Etheridge, who would stay for the 1976 album Softs and beyond. The audio quality is good and the whole band is clear and audible, with Etheridge’s guitar leading the majority of the tracks. His playing is virtuosic, and his fast improvisation, particularly on songs like Bundles, is constant throughout.

A number of the tracks performed at the show would shortly be recorded in the studio. For example, the third track, Out Of Season, is a slow, grooving piece led by Etheridge with a simple melody, bluesy twists and an intense crescendo at the midway point with Marshall on drums; it appeared on Soft Machine’s next release, Softs. Ban-Ban Caliban and Song Of Aeolus are performed, both of which would be recorded for Softs, the former played in a more gritty and stripped back fashion than the glossy version on Softs, and the latter similarly demonstrating the band’s rock ancestry when without reverberating synths.

The live versions of the Hazard Profile tracks are initially played with a slightly more laid-back feel, although Etheridge expertly recreates Holdsworth’s blistering guitar on Part One. However, by the final track, the group are at full speed, with Babbington’s bass and Marshall’s drums thundering beneath the rest of the group, before finally closing with the 15-minute long jam Sign Of Five.

The Nottingham show album is a welcome addition, as it shows the band’s strength when stripped back and live, and overall, the release is a brilliant example of the prog-rock and jazz-rock crossover in the 1970s, with Bundles itself a classic recording and one of Soft Machine’s best.

Discography
CD1: Hazard Profile Part One; Hazard Profile Part Two (Toccatina); Hazard Profile Part Three; Hazard Profile Part Four; Hazard Profile Part Five; Gone Sailing; Bundles; Land Of The Bag Snake; The Man Who Waved At Trains; Peff; Four Gongs Two Drums; The Floating World (41.52)
CD2: Bundles; Land Of The Bag Snake; Out Of Season; The Man Who Waved At Trains; JVH; The Floating World; Ban-Ban Caliban; Side Burn; Hazard Profile Part One; Hazard Profile Part Two (Toccatina); Hazard Profile Part Three; Hazard Profile Part Four; Hazard Profile Part Five; Song Of Aeolus; Sign Of Five (79.17)

John Marshall (d, pc); Roy Babbington (b); Karl Jenkins (p, elp, syn, ss, o); Mike Ratledge (elp, org, syn); Allan Holdsworth, John Etheridge (g, elg). London, July 1974 and Nottingham, 11 October 1975.
Esoteric Recordings ECLEC 22812