SOFT MACHINE Facelift (Voiceprint)

This double CD documents an appearance by the band at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon on 26 April 1970, the original recording having been made from the audience by Hugh Hopper's brother Brian using a small portable cassette recorder. The engineer himself soft-pedals concerns about sound quality in the booklet notes, summoning all the powers of persuasion available to somebody who has been paid for this album as opposed to somebody who has had to pay for it! "The quality and balance is as the audience actually heard it rather than the more 'clinical' presentation often obtained from a mixing desk…it is the spirit and energy which comes through in a performance that is critical and if these are at a high point as they were in this concert then any shortcomings in sound quality can be ignored in the sheer enjoyment of the music". Of course, it would be churlish to belatedly complain about the phenomenon of officially released bootleg recordings thirty years after The Velvet Underground's "Live At Max's Kansas City" kicked open that particular stall, but then again "the more 'clinical' presentation often obtained from a mixing desk" has also served its purpose well from "Five Live Yardbirds" onwards, and there should be some overridingly convincing musical or historical reason for giving private guerrilla recordings like this an airing. Hopper says "It was a performance that in the opinion of the four musicians involved was one of the best ever in that line-up", and as he was there and I wasn't I'll have to take his word for it.

So, the sound "Facelift" makes is…well, strictly AM quality, to be honest. Tempo and pitch lurch drunkenly until Hopper's battery-powered portastudio settles itself, but nothing can be done to overcome the distant, reverberent perspective captured here that tells you more about the acoustics of the venue than the band playing on the stage. Nevertheless, the human ear eventually learns to acclimatise and compensate, and given that there's over 90 minutes of this stuff to wade through it's afforded ample opportunity. Unfortunately, unlike, for example, The Velvet Underground, whose deliberately anti-produced studio recordings lessen the psychological leap to their numerous lo-fi official bootleg live albums, Soft Machine's complex, churning music seems to demand pindrop clarity before it makes any kind of sense, and consequently most of "Facelift" sounds rather mangled. There are moments that peek above the parapet of comprehension, though: segments of "Mousetrap" are strongly reminiscent of The Mothers Of Invention circa "Absolutely Free", when Frank Zappa brought together social critique, free jazz and 20th century classical music. "Pigling Bland" might be terrific with more coherent sound quality, with Elton Dean's saxophone outbursts climbing perilously up the sheer cliff face of Mike Ratledge's keyboard chords. And "Esther's Nose Job - Reprise" sounds a lot like "10.30 Returns To The Bedroom", the only Soft Machine tune I could hum.

But otherwise, "Facelift" is hard work for the Soft Machine neophyte, and questionable value for all but the most committed fan.