Soft Machine album review

A new door opens for this living legend

Soft Machine – ‘Other Doors’ (2023)
(June 30, 2023, Moonjune Records)

Today we have in our hands a very special album: “Other Doors”, the new phonographic work of the legendary and still current English band SOFT MACHINE, standard-bearer of the Canterbury side with her round trips through the discourses of jazz-prog, jazz-rock and jazz-fusion since those beginnings in the second half of the 60s in the midst of the British psychedelic wave. This album released on the last day of June has a very important meaning because it is the definitive testimony of the retirement of the brilliant drummer-percussionist John Marshall, who abandoned his long musical career at the age of 81; this leaves John Etheridge as the only remaining member of the group’s multifaceted 1970s era. The other two effective members of SOFT MACHINE are the already veteran “machinist” Theo Travis [saxofones tenor y soprano, flautas, piano eléctrico Fender Rhodes y efectos electrónicos] and Fred Thelonius Baker [bajo sin trastes]. The latter, who has an important resume as a member of IN CAHOOTS (the project of the late maestro Phil Miller) and as the leader of his own band, replaces another historical SOFT MACHINE musician, Roy Babbington: in any case, the latter comes out of retirement momentarily to appear on two of the thirteen songs contained on this CD, not replacing Baker, but cooperating with him (more details later). The material contained in this album published on the last day of June was recorded at Temple Music Studios between July and August 2022; This place was owned by the man who was the maestro Jon Hiseman in life, the champion of British progressive-jazz-rock who formed great groups such as COLOSSEUM, TEMPEST and COLOSSEUM II. The subsequent mixing and mastering processes took place at The Blue Studio in the hands of Andrew Tulloch. Etheridge and Travis are not only the main songwriters, but also serve as producers on “Other Doors.” Let us now review the details of his repertoire.

Soft Machine

‘Careless Eyes’ kicks things off with a display of ethereal atmospheres and graceful grooves in the space of almost 2 ½ minutes: it doesn’t last very long, but it certainly sets an evocative mood that feels quite timely and nice for the starting point, sort of like a placid sunrise gently heralding some expressive flashes throughout the new day. Immediately afterwards, the ensemble takes up a classic: ‘Penny Hitch’, a composition by the legendary Karl Jenkins for the 1974 album “Seven”. With the present conformation, the piece in question becomes an exercise in textures that are carried away by their own internal engineering, well structured from the relaxed basic swing while leaving spaces for the bass, sax and guitar to adequately decorate the thematic scheme. The homonymous piece, which lasts just over 4 ¾ minutes, is a climax of the album: ‘Other Doors’ has an initial section marked by an agility whose presence is sustained by the fluid amalgamation of the instruments around a very lively motif. The fabulous successive guitar and saxophone solos that emerge in the more sedate interlude brew captivating breezes of extroversion. Then comes the turn of ‘Crocked Usage’, the longest piece in the repertoire with just under 8 ½ minutes. The collective expands on its expressionist potential based on a fairly sober melodic scheme that seems to build bridges with the standard of the legendary NUCLEUS and that generation of SOFT MACHINE on the fifth album. From there, the rhythmic duo uses some deconstructive cadences à la free jazz to allow the contributions of the sax, guitar and flute to be enveloped by an exalted mystical halo. The inclusion of ‘Joy Of A Toy’, another connection to SOFT MACHINE’s immortal past, takes us by surprise: this composition by Kevin Ayers and Mike Ratledge for that first album released in December 1968 emerges as an exaltation of cheerful warmth where the basses (Baker and Babbington simultaneously) have plenty of space to show off their unstoppable dialogues. Final blows are reasonably incandescent. ‘A Flock Of Holes’ elaborates a hazy landscape that works as a counterpoint to the floating arrogance of the piece that opened the album. The percussive ornaments that add to the central soundscape add a subtle tension to the matter.

The ‘Whisper Back’ miniature offers a moment of contemplative reflection based on the crystalline phrasing emanating from Etheridge’s guitar: a reflection of evening light on the still waters of a fountain. From there, ‘The Stars Apart’ emerges with a well-defined color within a smooth and silky lyricism that has a lot to do with charm. The measured bass ornaments for the calm swing help this beautiful composition to conquer her own strength of character. In some places, Etheridge seems to be matching her style with that of the unforgettable Phil Miller. Under the assertive title of ‘Now! Is The Time’ beats a very special piece… Very special because it is co-written by bassists Baker and Babbington, being the second song in the repertoire where both share a dialogue space within a thematic path as ceremonious as it is flexible. Perfect blend of cool jazz elegance and typical blues cadences. ‘Fell To Earth’ partly picks up the traces of the groove from the preceding jam and elevates them to a more stately level while wrapping them under a particularly electrifying dynamism. In fact, this last factor serves as a lever for instrumental flight to fill spaces everywhere with mischievously Dadaist vigour. Another high point of the album, very much in line with the avant-jazz of the last five decades. ‘The Visitors At The Window’ takes this line of avant-garde work into more placid terrain, something very autumnal with soft scraps of unease that nonetheless lands in a melodically welcoming place. ‘Maybe Never’ plunges into almost minimalist futurism, which means there’s a brief walk into darker corners than the ones shown in the previous track. The official repertoire of the CD culminates with the second longest track on it, which is called ‘Back In Season’ and lasts around 7 ¼ minutes. His approach consists of a forceful return to the most colorful facet of the quartet’s current sonic engineering to give it a moderate dynamism. The guide imposed by the keyboard bases and the exquisite flute lines soon find in the floating authority of the guitar players a companion expressive force for the focus of the captivating melodic engineering. The most palatial aspect of the Canterbury returns in all its splendor, simultaneously exorcising the ghosts of SOFT HEAP, NATIONAL HEALTH and the SOFT MACHINE of 1976.

‘Back In Season’ is a decisive zenith of the album, but for the record there is still more to enjoy in the form of downloadable bonus tracks: one of these is a medley of two SOFT MACHINE classics, ‘Backwards’ and ‘Noisette’ (a standard that was very common in those concerts of the band between 1970 and 1973). The ensemble creatively enhances the exquisiteness inherent in these standards with a capitalization of crepuscular atmospheres that create a crystalline purity for the melodic schemes, which become more vibrant in the second half. Going to the other bonuses, we have Travis’ composition ‘When Frost Melts’, which exhibits a brooding spirituality absorbed by a dreamy breath that has some surreal snippets. The venerable Marshall contributes a drum solo called ‘Alice Clar’, the same one that sports the same exploratory attitude of other great solos he recorded on classic SOFT MACHINE records, both studio and live. ‘Look You Know’ and ‘Out Of Interest’ are the two remaining bonuses, having in common that they are collective compositions by Baker, Etheridge and Travis. They also have in common a sound approach focused on the abstract with a certain tendency towards the sharp, for which the feisty nature of the bass and guitar interventions helps. The sax also does its thing in the second. And so ends the experience of this new SOFT MACHINE album, “Other Doors”, which reveals itself as a new door that opens within the wide and wide path of that living legend that is SOFT MACHINE, a path that seems to have many stretches on the open horizon. We are very pleased that the renewed SOFT MACHINE collective, which counts the masterful Asaf Sirkis as its new drummer, continues to look forward with creativity and conviction. Totally recommendable!!!!

– Samples of ‘Other Doors’:

Joy Of A Toy:

More tracks on the album:

Cesar Inca Mendoza

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Soft Machine album review – ‘Other Doors’ (2023) –