Bundles is a superb example of classic 1970s jazz-rock at its finest, and a brilliant snapshot of the genius of Allan Holdsworth on the top of his game.
Right, before I start this review I’m going to come right out and say it – I’m not a great fan of Soft Machine overall. Albums such as their much-vaunted double Third tend to leave me rather cold, and that is the case for much of their ‘classic’ period. But wait! Before Soft Machine fans bring out the pitchforks and demand what this heretic is doing with the keys to the Bundles kingdom, let me expand on this. Because the very nature of this 1975 album – and indeed the surrounding short period in the band’s history – makes it the ideal subject for my scrutiny. Because while I may not be the biggest Soft Machine fan in the world, I absolutely love this album (and to a lesser degree, the two following it, Softs and Alive And Well In Paris). And the reason for that is the same as the rationale which makes many fans of the band regard this as almost a different band: namely the arrival of Allan Holdsworth to a previously guitar-less band, and the sharp left turn into often guitar-dominated fusion which veers closer to the rock side of the jazz/rock balance. By this time, Mike Ratledge was the only founder member left in the band (himself not for too much longer), and creatively and compositionally the reins had been very much handed over to Karl Jenkins, a member since 1972. In fact, apart from Ratledge, all of the other four band members had been in the fusion band Nucleus at one time or another, so it is almost more a Nucleus album than a Soft Machine one. So, as I said, perfect for a non-aficionado: of course Soft Machine fans will know this album and will have their opinions on it, but I am here to explain to the less dedicated Softs listener what is great about this album, and why they might love it.
The album opens in commanding style with the five-part, 20-minute suite Hazard Profile, which itself was adapted and significantly extended by Jenkins from an old Nucleus piece he composed called Song For The Bearded Lady. This is an entirely different kettle of hirsute fish to that earlier work, however, with much of it dominated by the astonishing playing of Holdsworth. The lengthy, nine-minute first part in particular is among the finest jazz-rock workouts you could wish to find, and following the reflective second part, the short third and fourth parts dial things up in a rather prog-rock sort of way to the climactic final section which bookends the piece magnificently. If there was nothing else of note on the album, it would still be worth your time for that epic, but there is much more Bundle For Your Buck coming up. After the short Holdsworth acoustic guitar piece Gone Sailing, the double-header of Bundles and Land Of The Bag Snake form another seven minutes of Holdsworth-led bliss to compete with Hazard Profile Part One. This is seriously jazzy in inspiration, but it also rocks as hard as you’d like. It’s the Soft Machine I always wanted the band to be, albeit that such an opinion lies at odds with many. Following those two, we get Ratledge’s only writing contributions, in the form of the somewhat jazzier and less guitar-heavy The Man Who Waved At Trains and the oddly titled Peff. Indeed, that latter half of what is essentially another two-parter features Holdsworth uncharacteristically taking a back seat as he refrains from soloing yet boosts the track enormously by some excellent rhythm playing – not what he is known for, certainly, and nice to hear. The album winds down with, first, a percussion solo (which is at least quite brief, and warns you of its intentions by being called Four Gongs Two Drums) followed by an ambient, langorous closer entitled The Floating World. That final piece is slightly over-extended to these ears at seven minutes, but it is certainly a lovely, serene melody.
So, a great album, and arguably one of the best recordings that Holdsworth ever appeared on, at least in this writer’s opinion. But there’s more, as you would expect in the case of Esoteric reissues, in the form of a bonus disc containing a show from Nottingham in October 1975, recorded for local radio broadcast and therefore professionally done. There is, however, a fly in the ointment – namely the fact that just as Bundles was being released in March 1975, Allan Holdsworth up and left after just over a year in the band, causing the cancellation of a month’s tour dates and much of the album’s momentum. As gifted as Holdsworth was, he was never renowned as a team player, and while he had received a very tempting offer to join up with jazz great Tony Williams, leaving the band in the lurch in such a way does smack of bad form. Fortunately, however, the replacement which was found proved to be inspired: John Etheridge was playing in the rather more laid-back Global Village Trucking Company, having previously employed somewhat more fiery soloing as a member of Daryl Way’s Wolf, and his playing on that October show illustrates right off the bat that the band lost very little if anything, as he is exemplary. The setlist is a superbly chosen one, and extremely relevant to this release, as most of Bundles is performed (albeit with Floating World in a much briefer – and arguably more effective – form), and the performances easily match the studio renditions – indeed, on occasions may be said to better them: The Man Who Waved At Trains is transformed. There are also a trio of choice pieces which would appear on the following album, Softs, as well as some unreleased material to really round it off. All in all, one of the best bonus discs of material I’ve encountered for quite a while.
As I said at the beginning of this review, your mileage may vary as to how this album sits – or stands apart – in terms of the Soft Machine canon. To me, it’s an essential part. What is certainly the case, however, is that Bundles is a superb example of classic 1970s jazz-rock at its finest, and a brilliant snapshot of the genius of Allan Holdsworth on the top of his game. And with the added addition of that essential live disc also in this particular bundle, well, that surely is more than enough. Highly recommended (now, maybe I’ll check out those earlier albums just one more time…)