Somnambule - Writing About Music

Oliver Ho ~ The Soft Machine

The soft machine was a phrase coined by William Seward Burroughs and used as the title of a full-length cutup version of his novel The Naked Lunch published in 1961. The novel is a brilliant and frequently astonishingly beautiful ["Calling partisans of all nations - Shift linquals, vibrate tourists - Word falling, photo falling - break through in grey room!"] piece of work centred upon the human body for which the title is a metaphor. The phrase manages to subtly but clearly communicate Burroughs’s simultaneous disgust and fascination with the human body. The author has been a source of inspiration for a plethora of cultural figures from Normain Mailer to David Cronenberg to Bill Laswell, Kurt Cobain and The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, to name but a few. And at least nominally it seems to Oliver Ho.

Sometimes cd cover designs can be awfully deceptive and that’s certainly the case with this one. It went straight to the back of the pile of review cds as it looked like it might be some kind of unremarkable electronica from the early 90s. But now that good old phrase about never judging a cd by its cover is ringing in my ears because The Soft Machine delivers some brilliant music. There’s trace elements of electro, techno and trance here. There’s the signature cowbell sound, there’s repetitive and morphing patterns a-plenty. Rhythms are fast-paced and urgent. The title track is pushed forward by a diva sample but it's as though she's gridded into the machine matrix and is simultaneously pleasuring and being pleasured by a single fast-paced siren note - the pace is ruthlessly fixed at pre-climax frenzy and stays there until the track's sudden, unfulfilled cessation. Elsewhere, little trumpet figures adorn Changing echoing in the virtual space of the music, an african tribal sample kicks off Burnt Sienna (I’m reminded here and at other times a little of Richard H. Kirk circa Virtual State) and so on – these I guess are the ‘soft’, human parts of the equation. The rest of the music is machinic, hard-edged, compelling stuff. Ultimately The Soft Machine reflects a state of transitional being that may or may not have been anticipated by William Burroughs. Highly recommended for fans of maximal, colourful techno.
Colin Buttimer
May 2004
Published by Absorb