As the Soft Machine moved further away from rock on Third and Fourth, drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt's dissatisfaction with the band's direction grew and, by the time sessions started for Fifth in late 1971, he had left permanently to form Matching Mole. While the instrumental Fourth had forayed deep into jazz-rock territory, Fifth found the Soft Machine working almost completely in the jazz idiom. At the time of Wyatt's departure, keyboardist Mike Ratledge commented that the band's co-founder had "never enjoyed or accepted working in complex time signatures." However, Wyatt's replacement -- Phil Howard -- didn't prove to be the kind of timekeeper Ratledge and bassist Hugh Hopper had in mind and his free jazz orientation led to his dismissal during the recording of the album. Howard's propulsive rhythms nevertheless make a vital contribution to memorable Ratledge compositions like "All White" and "Drop" as they gather momentum and coalesce into driving grooves. "All White" is focused largely on Elton Dean's sax performance while "Drop" ultimately showcases the intense busy fuzz of Ratledge's organ. In places on Fifth, there does seem to be an element of tension between the more structured approach of Ratledge and Hopper and the free-form inclinations of Dean. The looser style of Dean's squalling sax playing is foregrounded particularly on "As If" -- another Ratledge piece. A certain constituency among Soft Machine fans tends to concentrate on the band's earlier releases and to consider everything from Fourth onward less compelling. That attitude has something to do with not being especially interested in jazz, so it's not entirely fair to dismiss this album without qualifying such a judgment. Anyone expecting to hear a rock album or a jazz-rock album will probably be disappointed with Fifth. This is essentially a jazz record, more concerned with texture and interplay than with song-based structures.
AllMusic Review by Wilson Neate