Time catches up with all of us, and Marshall and Babbington leave the band with an album that will delight Soft Machine fans.
Dyad records DY032
John Etheridge (electric guitars); Theo Travis (tenor and alto saxophones, flutes, Fender Rhodes, electronics); Fred Thelonious Baker (fretless bass); John Marshall (drums); Roy Babbington (additional bass on tracks 2 and 9)
Recorded Temple Music Studio, Surrey 30-31 July and 1, 13, 14 August 2022
Other Doors is a fitting title, because it evokes the saying: ‘as one door closes, another opens,’ and this album marks yet another turning point in the long and illustrious history of Soft Machine.
Formed 55 years ago, the band has undergone a series of transformations (as well as generating a handful of spin-off groups) and on this album, two long-serving members bow out.
Bassist Roy Babbington is now 83 and first recorded with the band in 1971, on the album Fourth. He left Soft Machine in 1976, but rejoined in 2009 (when it was known as Soft Machine Legacy). He retired from the band in 2021, but makes two guest appearances here.
Babbington’s replacement is Fred Thelonious Baker, who plays fretless bass on this album and has been a long-time part of the Canterbury music scene – he has played with the now sadly deceased Soft Machine members Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper, as well as Phil Miller’s band Cahoots. He’s also recorded several albums as leader.
Drummer John Marshall makes his final Soft Machine recording with this album (he played his last live gig at Ronnie Scott’s in July 2022). Marshall joined Soft Machine in 1972 (part way through the making of Fifth) and since then, has been a constant presence, including the various spin-offs like Software, Soft Works and Soft Machine Legacy.
Now at 81, and with health issues to contend with, he’s bowing out of the music scene (the drum chair has since been taken over by Asaf Sirkis, who does not play on this recording).
This latest line-up is led by guitarist John Etheridge, and woodwind player/keyboardist Theo Travis, who between them have composed or co-composed ten of the thirteen tracks, as well as produced the album – the band’s first since 2018’s Hidden Details. Incidentally, the album credits no fewer than 40 executive producers – what’s that all about?
The album kicks off with a Travis/Etheridge composition, ‘Careless Eyes’ which opens with the ethereal sound of flute and guitar, and is a haunting call-and-response piece. In fact, the tune sounds like an extended intro to the following number, which follows on seamlessly: Karl Jenkins’ ‘Penny Hitch,’ from the 1973 album Seven.
Its calm, atmospheric intro leads into a Marshall laying down a strong, steady, midtempo beat, with the two bassists (Baker and Babbington) complementing each other nicely, as Baker’s fretless plays the melodic lines and Babbington provides solid support.
Etheridge plays a tasteful guitar solo, with Travis playing tenor – Jenkins played soprano sax in the original; this new version sounds smoother and sleeker. The tune ends in the same way as the original, with Marshall playing a flurry of ferocious fills.
The title track, composed by Etheridge, starts off with a raw-sounding rock guitar riff, with sax and guitar combining to play the head on this midtempo rocker. The piece is dominated by Etheridge’s guitar, which includes an extended solo, replete with fast runs and arpeggios.
In addition to playing keyboards, Travis steps forward to play a gritty tenor sax solo. He is very much in the mould of Karl Jenkins, which is to say, a highly talented multi-instrumentalist. ‘Crooked Usage’ is an eight-minute abstract piece composed by Travis, that includes wailing sax lines, fluttering flutes, tumbling percussion, skittering guitar lines and electronic sounds.
Guitar and sax together play the closest thing to a theme. The tune builds up to a fever pitch, before the sound dissipates, like a slowly deflating balloon.
‘Joy of Toy’ is another tune from the Soft Machine songbook archive, in this case a Kevin Ayres/Mike Ratledge tune from the band’s first album, released in 1968. A quirky number originally recorded at the height of psychedelia, the original version was closer to rock than jazz, with Ayres’ wah-wah guitar dominating the mix.
This new version has more swing (its opening bars reminds me of the Pink Panther theme) and Baker’s fretless bass takes the lead role, with Etheridge playing a more restrained wah-wah guitar. ‘A Flock of Holes’ is Marshall’s sole composition on the album (it was written with Travis).
It’s a dramatic number with crashing cymbals and a haunting flute sound (overdubbed in places).
The shortest piece, ‘Whisper Back’ is just 1:41 in length and is a solo guitar piece, written and played by Etheridge, who manages to make his electric guitar sound more like a classical guitar. It’s a lovely tune, with a calming, soothing sound, and one wishes it was much longer.
It also highlights what a fine guitarist Etheridge is. He’s a musician, who in this writer’s opinion doesn’t get the recognition his talents fully deserve. ‘The Stars Apart’ is a laid-back piece, with Etheridge sounding as if he’s playing guitar while resting on a hammock. Baker plays a good solo, with a sweet tone and fine articulation, occasionally playing high up on the neck.
‘Now! Is the Time’ is the second tune to feature Babbington and Baker (they co-composed it) and is a delightful two-minute bass duet. They start off doubling up together on the theme before Baker’s fretless pulls away to play in the higher range (Baker also throws in some nice harmonics here and there) while Babbington provides plenty of bottom. The two basses then recombine to play a bluesy riff together, before ending with the opening theme.
The final four pieces were all composed by Travis. ‘Fell To Earth’ has a menacing opening, with a ringing, reverberating guitar riff and the theme played on a saxophone that sounds like it has risen from the dark, deep bowels of the earth.
It’s an abstract piece and one wonders if it was inspired by the Nic Roeg film The Man Who Fell to Earth, another abstract work with a disturbing theme. Part way through the piece, the band ‘freak out’ – electronic sound effects mingle with howling sax, twittering flutes, out-of-tempo drumming, stabbing bass lines and aggressive guitar– it’s a discordant mix that oddly sounds appealing.
‘The Visitor at the Window’ is another atmospheric tune, combining flute, percussion and graceful guitar lines, and played over a wash of electronic sound. Travis plays soprano sax towards the end of the piece. ‘Maybe Never’ is an electronic sound collage featuring lots of ‘spacey’ beeps and bleeps – it could be the theme to a science fiction programme.
The closing number, ‘Back in Season’ harks back to the classic Soft Machine sound of the 1970s. It starts off with what sounds like a short, delicate acoustic piano solo, although the instrument is not listed in the credits, and then moves onto the song’s plaintive theme, played on flute.
There’s a jazzy/folk feel to the sound, with Marshall playing a swinging beat and Etheridge adding various guitar riffs over the sound of a reverberating flute. Time catches up with all of us, and Marshall and Babbington leave the band with an album that will delight Soft Machine fans.
What’s also clear is that with Travis and Etheridge at the helm, the future of Soft Machine is in good hands.