Soft Machine: less a band and more an organism which is constantly evolving

Soft Machine's Other Doors review: The fêted fusionists come knocking again with 12th studio album.

Soft Machine Other Doors album
(Image: © Dyad)

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Soft Machine laboured under the augmented Soft Machine Legacy title in the early part of this century, something they quite rightly put a stop to with 2018’s Hidden Details – the group’s first studio album since 1981’s Land Of Cockayne. Five years later, Other Doors does a fine job of balancing the past with the present, and also what’s to come.  

Soft Machine are, after all, less a band and more an organism which is constantly evolving. The line-up never stayed settled for long, with the Softs averaging one major regeneration per album, and so it goes with this recent incarnation. Bassist Roy Babbington went into retirement with Hidden Details in the can, and now with the release of Other Doors, we say goodbye to drum legend John Marshall, who is hanging up his sticks due to ongoing health problems. Babbington and Marshall will be missed, though with almost 30 line-up changes over the years, one suspects the group will somehow continue. Plus ça change. 

Legacy is very much in evidence after the diffident opener Careless Eyes, a scene-setting mystical hum with delay-drenched pipes to create a kind of cinematic tension. And then we’re straight in with a cover of the earlier Softs song Penny Hinch, from 1976’s Seven, which benefits from the deluxe sax of Theo Travis, a relative newcomer who replaced Elton Dean back in 2006. Big shoes to fill, though his intuitive sense of purpose works well within the framework of this incarnation in which the fluidity of the interplay between himself and the great John Etheridge on guitar is breathtaking at times. In many ways, Travis leads from the front, especially on the lush denouement Back In Season as well as on Other Doors (the song). 

The title track scales frantically like a thief trying to make a getaway up a ladder. There are many potential jumping-off points, though it’s never quite as labyrinthine or psychedelic as the name might suggest. Other Doors (the album) is a welcome addition to the discography; a moodier, less volatile offering than its predecessor with a comprehensively more cohesive sound. Where Hidden Details slipped into moments of funk, with even some slap and pop from Babbington, his able replacement, Fred Thelonius Baker, brings a different kind of agility to tracks like The Stars Apart, featuring tender though no less nimble fingerwork.

Other Doors doesn’t quite enter new portals of sonic adventure in the way that, say, 1973’s Third might have, but that would surely be asking too much at this stage. In any case, it’s well worth putting out the welcome mat for.

Other Doors is available to buy or stream.