Grab your favourite tipple, turn the lights down, and soak up a session of amongst the best Soft Machine material in years. It’s been five years since their last album, the well-received Hidden Details, and as the band approach 60 years of history they have now released Other Doors. If there’s one thing that is guaranteed of Soft Machine, it is a constant evolution of their music, whilst retaining a signature sound.
It is very clear that these accomplished musicians know their onions, both as individuals and as a group, and I give immediate credit and thanks to two exceptionally gifted members of the band who formed the rhythm section for decades: Roy Babbington and John Marshall. This is the first line-up where Fred Thelonius Baker takes on the primary bass role for a studio release, Babbington having hung his boots up well into his eighties after 51 years in the Soft Machine groove. But for all you purists out there, Babbington does return for a couple of guest turns on this album, and he still has the groove. This is also a farewell album for drummer and percussionist John Marshall, also in his eighties, and he now passes the sticks to Asaf Sirkis. Marshall can be immensely proud of his contribution to Soft Machine, also for 51 years, and to British jazz in general, and Other Doors is a fine demonstration of just how good a drummer he has been throughout. I take my hat off to both Roy and John.
That leaves John Etheridge and Theo Travis, two musicians at the top of their game and whom I have admired as amongst the very best in their field. I guess Etheridge is the notional leader of the band, providing extraordinary jazz fusion guitar licks (and apologies to him for use of the word fusion…) having been on the Softies scene since 1975. Travis, the comparative youngster in all senses of the word, has now been with Soft Machine for 17 years, providing woodwind and keyboards. Most – but certainly not all – of the compositional credits for the new tunes sit with Etheridge and Travis. There’s a future for these gentlemen…
This album differs in some respects to their previous material in that it seems more improvisational, but no less feisty and gripping. To quote Travis, “The interesting thing about recording free improvisations is you’re not playing to a plan or a grid or a blueprint, so you don’t know what’s coming, and you don’t know what’s coming until it’s gone. At which moment you’re thinking about the next thing.” If you want improvisational free-flowing jazz rock, illustrating creativity in spades, this album is for you.
The band also continues the tradition of reimagining some older songs from the bands extensive repertoire, this time reverting back to their 1968 debut album with Joy of A Toy and 1973’s Seven with Penny Hitch, both crowd favourites on the live circuit. We also get, on the vinyl version, the much loved Backwards/Noisette originally from 1970. More about those later…
The new tunes immediately garner attention. the pan pipe sounding guitar notes, with Etheridge reverb in spades, of Careless Eyes could be Native American or from the Himalayas, a perfect introduction to the album. The title track, Other Doors, illustrates avant-garde jazz-rock, the interplay of Fender Rhodes keys with Etheridge’s guitar solo front middle and centre. That guitar sound could really only be Etheridge, still performing at his very best. There’s lots of saxophone, with a feeling of it being creative in the extreme, quite possibly improvised straight to tape. Crooked Usage rounds off Side A; a Travis composition, he truly gets and maintains the original vintage band sound. Almost trad jazz to start, something very fresh in the modern day Soft Machine sound, but with a significant nod to their eclectic past of the early ’70s, before developing into jazz fusion (sorry, John…). It takes some getting used to, but the Soft Machine fans of old will relish in its improvisational delights.
The album is peppered with shorter conjoining tracks, no less important than the main themes. For example, A Flock of Holes returns to a pan pipe theme with some exceptional percussive elements from Marshall, a masterclass in stitching together a simple theme with complex percussion. And whilst I’m on the theme of the rhythm section, Now! Is the Time is another masterclass in bass playing, featuring both Baker and Babbington. All bass players will delight in this as the baton trades between these two gifted back-line players. Whisper Back is a a guitar interlude from Etheridge, demonstrating his melodic side. One can imagine Pat Metheny looking on… and learning. Beautiful. And Maybe Never, which almost futuristic in nature and quite different to the usual Soft Machine sound, perhaps a Travis indulgence to his electronic frippery, but somehow it fits well.
The Stars Apart is a highlight of the album, with a chance for the whole band to shine. A delightful bass solo from Baker dominates the middle section, before a return to melodic guitar tones. Well done, Mr Etheridge – I think this will be a crowd favourite on your promotional tour. The band have been playing Fell To Earth live for a while. Some may find it discordant, others will appreciate the evident concentration between the band members as they improvise their way through the composition and fill it with many instruments, notably flute and saxes from Travis, all the while the other members having their parts to play. The apt-titled The Visitor at the Window offers the opportunity to reflect on the band sound, and Back in Season closes the album, another signature Soft Machine track with jazz-rock-fusion foundations. Marshall’s percussion stands out amongst the other performers in a song of many parts. The middle section is dominated by piano and flute before guitar interrupts in a battle of wills; the bass line seems to be umpiring and percussion acts as the audience keenly cheering on.
I return to the re-imagined tracks: Penny Hitch is melodic, with the Babbington/Baker bass prominent and tight percussive rhythm from Marshall, before Travis takes centre stage on sax. Etheridge’s guitar is sweet as a nut. Lovely repetitive keys from Travis offer room filling sound, taking the listener back 50 years to those heady days. A very comforting highlight of the album. Joy of A Toy, a track conceived by Kevin Ayres and Mike Ratledge in 1968, is now brought up to date with additional harmonies from Travis. Baker explains: “The way I look at it is that this is all great music which we’re continuing to preserve and keep alive as we play it, but also we’re adding to it all the time.” And Travis: “I’ve added some extra harmonies and other things to it, so it’s got my stamp as well as going back right down to Kevin Ayers’ original. It somehow fitted in with all of the new material as well as the older tracks we do.”
Backwards/Noisette is one of my very favourite of all time, going back 50 years. I have loved this throughout the last half century in its various guises, whether played by Soft Machine or Caravan. This is another quite exceptional version of the Hopper/Ratledge classic, which rightly gets Travis a standing ovation for his saxophone playing. But that is not all… the whole band erupts in an eclectic epic performance, with Etheridge demonstrating 20-notes-to-the second guitar, and a rhythm section as complementary as one can imagine. This is a beauty, quite possibly the best version I have ever heard, a ‘must-hear’ if you will.
On the vinyl version, Side D/4 will be seen by some as the jewel in the crown. Six short tracks of two to three minutes, comprising some eclectic modern day ‘Soft Machinism’… and an alternative take on Fell to Earth – jazz rock that can only be Soft Machine, capturing the very best of this genre. It has everything, from 1960s improv through to 21st Century cinematic soundtracks, Travis’ saxophone shining bright, but seemingly balanced equally by the skills of the whole band. Honestly, it grows with every listen. Symphonic prog, it ain’t – but it was never intended to be. It is exceptional Soft Machine atmospheric jazz that is true to form.
Soft Machine, with well over five decades in their discography, remain progressive and fresh whilst retaining their signature Canterbury Scene sound. The tunes, sound and production are superlative and this album is a must to add to the Soft Machine collection. There can be only one Soft Machine, an iconic and mesmerising band both in the studio and on the stage and, with Other Doors their reputation is assured – the band lives on. Have you finished that tipple yet? Best go get another one…
TRACK LISTING (Vinyl Edition)
01. Careless Eyes (2:28)
02. Penny Hitch (6:49)
03. Other Doors (4:51)
04. Crooked Usage (8:30)
05. Joy of A Toy (3:24)
06. A Flock of Holes (2:18)
07. Whisper Back (1:41)
08. The Stars Apart (4:23)
09. Now! Is the Time (2:16)
10. Fell to Earth (5:51)
11. Backwards/Noisette (7:35)
12. The Visitor at the Window (4:08)
13. Maybe Never (2:26)
14. Back in Season (7:17)
Vinyl Bonus Tracks:
15. Alice Clar (2:37)
16. Out of Interest (2:08)
17. On This Day (2:22)
18. Look You Know (2:22)
19. When Frost Melts (2:24)
20. Fell to Earth [Alternative Take] (5:35)
CD Edition (tracks 1-13)
Digital Edition (tracks 1-16 & 18)
Total Time – 81:25
John Etheridge – Guitars
Theo Travis – Tenor & Soprano Saxophones, Flutes, Fender Rhodes Piano, Electronics
Fred Thelonious Baker – Fretless Bass Guitar
John Marshall – Drums & Percussion
Roy Babbington – (Additional) Bass Guitar (tracks 2 & 9)
Record Label: Tonefloat
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 30th June 2023