ROVO and SYSTEM 7 - "Phoenix Rising"

In which Steve and Miquette lose the METRONOME and go back to something a little more RADIO GNOME again! 

System 7 were always a frustrating band, if a 'band' is ever what they were. You always found yourself wishing that they'd escape the restrictions of the relentless "doof-doof-doof-doof-doof-doof-doof" mechanical beats and for once do something a little more Planet Gong now and again. You knew from old how musically capable Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy were, but you couldn't lose the feeling that they were somehow going for some easy money by catering primarily for the "Big Fish Little Fish Cardboard Box" brigade. They tend to make functional music. Goa Trance by numbers. It's okay for stirring up a tentful of midnight ravers and it's pretty useful as a soundtrack to long car journeys. But when could you ever sit down and listen to it?

For me, the best bits of System 7 were always when they lost the beats altogether and got a lot more ambient and Rainbow Dome-ified, such as on the "Water" version of "Point 3" or some of the spacey stuff on side two of "777". But when they crank up the drum machines for forty-five minutes at a stretch? They're just not interesting enough, not rhythmically involved or involving. Maybe I don't take the right kind of drugs, but I just don't get it.

Well, this is the System 7 album that those of us who don't dance have been waiting for... The album where Steve Hillage straps on a guitar and takes off into the stratosphere like you always knew he still could... The album where the mechanical beats are finally given more substance and texture by the inclusion of not one but two real drummers... The album with a much-needed injection of human interaction, courtesy of the Japanese progressive/jam band ROVO (who, deservedly, get top billing, just in case if you were wondering where to find the CD racked in HMV).

On first listening, you notice that this album... DOESN'T ALL SOUND THE SAME! Each track has a distinctive character and style. It's almost a potted summation of all the different kinds of music that Hillage has been involved in over the years.

I can't tell from listening whether the musicians were actually in the same room at the same time of recording or whether the two bands gave each other tracks to work on separately (as is the norm these days)... but the impression is definitely one of musicians jamming together.

The first track "Hinotori" is a System 7 track given the Rovo treatment. It thus becomes a huge twin guitar anthem, with the tumbling drummers to the fore and all those swirling synthesisers whizzing around your head, filling any unoccupied space.

"Love For The Phoenix" is a little more like System 7 as you know them - they even recycle the "Ya Habibi" sample from the first album as a point of reference! But the Japanese musicians offer a much richer pallet of synthesiser colours.

The audacity of it all! Just to prove that these are real musicians and not the result of laptop jiggerypokery, they follow that with a faithful version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra's "Meeting Of The Spirits" (or is it "Meetings Of The Spirit"? Even Johnny Mac himself could never make up his mind about that one!). The drums here are a little more 'anchored' than you would expect from a Billy Cobham, but the instrumental interplay (fast guitars! electric violins! bendy-note moogs!) is exactly what you'd love to hear!

The centrepiece of the album is the quarter-of-an-hour-or-so epic "Cisco", which touches several bases during the course of its allotted time. It starts off in a 'motorik' krautrock vibe, which gradually reaches a point in space situated somewhere between Hawkwind and the Boredoms (during their "Vision Creation NewSun" period. Rovo's guitarist used to be a Boredom himself). It builds to a frenzied climax during which the drummers are seemingly playing two completely different songs, before arriving somewhere off the coast of the Isle Of You with Zero the Hero and a Master Builder or five. It's impossible not to be swept along by it... which I guess is the whole point.

After all that, "Unbroken" seems like the weakest track on the album, but it too has its own appeal. If it wasn't for the contemporary hoppy-skippy dubstep rhythm, you'd swear you were listening to something from the early seventies heyday of 'jazz fusion'. It's almost like Colosseum Two were rehearsing in the studio next door, while Miquette and Steve were getting ready for the evening's rave!

If track two was a System 7 track passed on for the Rovo treatment, then "Sino Dub" must therefore be a Rovo track that has been given to the System twins to have a go at. The beats certainly have that 'doof-doof-doof' feel throughout. But at various points during its twelve minutes, there's some fabulous instrumental - oh, let's call 'em SOLOS, shall we? - moments that lift it above the dancefloor.

"Unseen Onsen" gets a solitary 'M.Giraudy' writing credit on the sleeve, so you kinda guess that they're going to end the album in a more 'ambient' mood. Sure enough, it's time to leave the drumboxes switched off - bring on the hurdy-gurdy glissandos and those bubbling sequencers and we're back in the rainbow dome once more for some serious blissing out... you wish it could have gone on longer really...

Bring on the live DVD!!!