Soft Machine Plots New Directions on Other Doors

The veteran fusion band isn’t done exploring

Soft Machine Other Doors, MoonJune Records 2023

Soft Machine has been a band in search of other doors since their late ‘60s beginnings, so why discontinue that practice now?

While the British jazz-rock giants maintain some connections with their past on Other Doors, they sound completely committed to finding new routes for realizing their vision. They’re ferocious or seductive as the moment demands, but always pushing towards unexplored areas.

The two stalwarts for this recording are guitarist John Etheridge and drummer John Marshall, both of whom were in ‘70s incarnations of the band. Bassist Roy Babbington retired in between 2018’s Hidden Details and now, but he guests on two tracks here. Theo Travis (sax, flute, keyboards) has been helping hold down the front line for a while, but the new blood is bassist Fred Thelonious Baker. He goes back to the glory days of the Canterbury scene that developed around Soft Machine, having played with Phil Miller, Pip Pyle, and many more. In other words, if you have to replace Uncle Roy, Fred’s the guy you want.

There are two overt nods to the band’s legacy: new versions of “Penny Hitch” and “Joy of a Toy.” The former was introduced on Soft Machine 7, when Babbington and Marshall were the band’s rhythm rulers. And 50 years later, the pair delivers an even more elastic-but-understated groove than they did the first time around. The latter tune goes all the way back to the Softs’ 1968 debut, but somehow the light-hearted psychedelic jazz frenzy feels even more fully realized in the new interpretation.

Beyond that, everything here is fresh meat. And the band shows no interest whatsoever in glancing toward the rear-view mirror. Sure, there’s an identifiable Soft Machine fingerprint to all the new tunes. But Other Doors takes its title literally, establishing a feel that’s unlike any other album in the band’s discography.

Soft Machine 2023 (Image: MoonJune Records)

It’s apparent from the start with the atmospheric opener, “Careless Eyes,” a slowly unfurling piece that could be the intro to some mid-’70s Pink Floyd epic, complete with a warm bath of keyboards and Etheridge’s lyrical, rather David Gilmour-ish guitar licks. “Crooked Usage” is a free-flowing piece operating largely without a fixed rhythm, where the band brings its improv skills to bear, establishing a heady, contemplative vibe. 

Led by Travis’s flute, “A Flock of Holes” is a floating, spacey trip through inner vistas, while “Whisper Back” is a brief, gently jazzy guitar journey that leads to mellow, moody “The Stars Apart,” featuring some tasty, Jaco Pastorius-worthy fretless work from Baker. “Now! Is the Time” is Babbington’s turn to shine with a fluid, tonally complex composition for bass. 

“Fell to Earth” is about as apocalyptic as anything in the Soft Machine catalog, while the breathy whispers of “The Visitor at the Window” make for one of the most mysterious sounding tracks the band has recorded, potential fodder for a TV detective soundtrack. And speaking of soundtracks, the avant-garde, electronic-based interlude “Maybe Never” could easily have made it into the score for a ‘70s sci-fi movie. 

Unlike some of their ‘70s fusion peers, Soft Machine has never been about chops. But on Other Doors more than ever before, they concentrate more on establishing a mood and communicating a feeling than on showing off their considerable instrumental skills (not that those skills aren’t apparent throughout the record). And it’s a feeling that’s darker and dreamier than what we may be used to from them.

For a band of Soft Machine’s vintage to be forging new pathways is pretty damn ambitious. And pulling it off as well as they do here seems like some kind of magic trick.


Jim Allen

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Jim Allen

Jim Allen has contributed to print and online outlets including Billboard, NPR Music, MOJO, Uncut,,, Bandcamp Daily,, and many more. He's written liner notes for reissues by everyone from Bob Seger to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and is a singer/songwriter in the bands Lazy Lions and The Ramblin' Kind as well as a solo artist.

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