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abundance of skill, mellowed by age
on 10 November 2003
I can understand why many people don't rate this album as highly as other later Soft Machine records, but there's still a fair bit in it.
It was really Karl Jenkins' solo project, in the sense that he wrote the music and conducted the orchestral backing. In many ways it seemed to be the beginning of him bridging from his background with Nucleus and Softs into the classical idiom. So the record has a different feel to it: it's more mellow and often slower, kind of like soundtrack material, but there's lots of musical knowledge, wisdom and good ideas.
I love the playing of John Marshall on this record, he really nails the percussive moods and grooves and has a big say in the production. I have a few problems with Jack Bruce's bass lines, which aren't too bad but occasionally seem to lack the pace, fire and even texture that one might expect in Softs' material: no more so than the almost banal disco rhythm underscoring the opening track, Over 'n' above. But, hey, it was 1980 and it was pretty high-exposure stuff back then, and I expect that was Jenkins' idea of fun, or context or zeitgeist or.... maybe it was about lifting the audience out of conformist muzak. And it was an intro, which may have attracted non-Softs people or radio play even and then transformed a few consciousnesses.
Those bumps are pretty soon smoothed out on the delicate synth, bass flute and percussive work on Lotus Groves (#2), perhaps an homage to McLaughlin's Lotus feet, but to my mind the musical performance really lifts with Panoramania(#4), which really stays with you: rich and soaring sounds of sax and orchestra and superb snappy drumming, and a great Fender Rhodes solo by John Taylor.
The second side continues the theme: Palace of Glass reminds me of Island years' Jade Warrior before being smashed open by Marshall's drums and then a soaring mellotron-like segue into the funk mayhem that follows.
Those who like the material that led up to this album might find some satisfaction with the hotter and funkier tracks towards the end of the record, Hot biscuit slim and A lot of what you fancy, embellished by great cymbal playing by Marshall. In between these two sits Sly Monkey, a platform for lyrical playing by Alan Holdsworth and Dick Morrisey's bluesy sax, by then abandoned by Jenkins.
The Land of Cockayne should be seen as a concept album about musical opulence, with the tracks aligned to take the listener into a vast range of musical moods. There's heaps of soundscapes here, some good moods and emotional yet tempered playing, even if the music has less of the signature melting keyboards of the Ratledge era and appears less intense and perhaps too funkified when compared to the jazz-rock that followed it.
I'd give it 31/2 stars, just to warn those die-hards that this is not what fans of previous eras of Softs might expect, but I love most of the record.