Thursday, December 31, 2015

System 7 - System 7 (Original TC Review)

10 Records: 1991

(2015 Update:
I've still yet to take the plunge into System 7's full discography. Shame on me. There's no reason I shouldn't have by now, especially with so much online streaming available at my whim. Maybe that should be a New Year's resolution, to finally take in the entirety of Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy, and all their quarter-century of System 7ing. It's not like I expect some wild, unfortunate genre experiments along the way, the duo essentially sticking to their psychedelic trance, prog- rock jamborees through the years (decades!). If anything, their debut remains the least System 7y thing they ever System 7'd.

This review isn't as cynical as I remember, though why I had to get my hate on with the accordion, I don't recall. No wait, I was still feeding off the backlash of Samin's
Heater, that's why. I suppose I couldn't help but let my Gen-X jadedness get the better of me too, snickering at such earnest lyrics. Funny how a few extra years of added wisdom has mellowed my stance on them now. That is wisdom I feel now, right? Maybe just gas.)


IN BRIEF: A prog rocker gets chummy with dance culture.

Probably the last name you’d expect to have a trendy club hit in this year of 2008 would be Steve Hillage’s System 7 project. Although he and Miquette Giraudy have long been respected figures within dance music, their tendency to skew towards the psychedelic side of the electronic spectrum hasn’t earned them the spotlight since that style’s mid-90s heyday. Yet along comes Mr. Minimal-Marmite-Man Dubfire with one of his remixes, and propels the latest System 7 single Song Bird high into some of the more hip dance charts out there.

Such seems to be the story of Hillage’s career. It isn’t so much you’d expect him to fade into obscurity, but for all intents and purposes one would assume his contemporary relevance should. After nearly two decades as a prog rock guitarist, Hillage discovered acid house when Alex Paterson of The Orb fame discovered him. System 7 is born soon afterwards, gained a plethora of fans amongst the early goa-trance scene, became a fixture at Glastonbury’s dance tent, and just when you’d think this project has slipped away into irrelevancy, it’s thrust once again into the presence of another generation of party-goers. Perhaps that hippie attitude has provided Hillage with plenty of good karma after-all. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess, but even if this recent mini-thrust back into the spotlight is to be his last, Hillage has done plenty in his career to deserve such good will.

Really, I don’t think anyone would have expected Hillage to be a fixture within dance music culture for so long given the rather unique plunge System 7 first took. This self-titled 1991 debut is a strange relic of its time, where scene networking could yield powerhouse collaborations of the sort found on here. Along with Dr. Paterson, you have Hillage working with techno-don Derrick May, at-the-time ace-producer Paul Oakenfold, Steve Waddington of The Beloved fame (remember them?), and Martin Glover (Youth) just on this album alone (the System 7 moniker would go on to include work with Laurent Garnier, Juno Reactor, Carl Craig, Greg Hunter, Drum Club, and recently Jam el Mar and Eat Static - whew, but is this ever a namedrop session). Yet, because System 7's concept was more about Hillage’s forays into dance music, the idea of this being some kind of electronic music supergroup was never really considered.

Nowadays, this album has mostly faded from the collective clubbing consciousness for various reasons. For one thing, it remains the only album that hasn’t been re-issued on Hillage’s new A-Wave label, although legal complications with the distributors - UK-based Ten and American-based Caroline (whom had to change the group’s name to 777 over other legal complications) - may have something to do with that. Primarily, though, it tends to be neglected since it bears little resemblance to the sort of music the project would go on to be known for.

And just what kind of music is on here? If you’re familiar with Stereo MC’s, that’ll give you a starting point, because another thing that easily dates System 7 to the early 90s is the incredibly liberal melting pot of genres on offer. There’s house, techno, ambient, soul, breaks, prog, pop, and even hints of psychedelia. With so many different influences contributing, there was no possible way a cohesive style would dominate throughout. Heck, where does one even start when describing what these songs sound like? How about the material that isn’t dated?

The Derrick May pairings easily sound fresh even today. Thumping techno cut Altitude remains superb, with Listen and ambient-intermission Fractal Liason finding the Detroit native’s futuristic touch working wonders with Hillage’s spacey guitar work; any of these offerings could hold their own in a modern-day set. Meanwhile, Alex Paterson’s ambient house specialty can be felt on Sunburst, along with his studio wizardry in Dog, coda-like follow-up Thunderdog, and the straight-forward club-cut Miracle (where Oakenfold lends his talents as well). The production on these is quite remarkable too, where it seldom feels like you’re being fed simple dance loops. There be practiced musicians in them studios, my friends, with arrangements that make ample use of their experienced song-writing skills.

On the other hand, the vocal songs are way early 90s. Whether it be Aniff Cousins’ contemplative raps (think a proto-Maxi Jazz) or Olu Rowe’s soulful singing, their themes remain constant. Freedom Fighters, Habibi, Bon Humeur, Dog, and Strange Quotations all feature lyrics that feed off the “good times are coming” attitude that was prevalent in much of the Western world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. All fine and well, I suppose; you certainly have to admire the optimism. However - and this may just be a generational gap thing - some of the messages delivered in these songs strike me as New-Agey Boomer platitudes, something that was quite common in adult pop music of the time. Looking back on it now with the benefit (detriment?) of cynical Gen-X hindsight, one can’t help but feel a little embarrassed that all the hope of social and political change of that time never gained much traction. Musically these songs are fine (well, aside from that accordion in Strange Quotations), but whether you enjoy the lyrics or not will probably boil down to personal preference. Interestingly, vocals were seldom utilized by System 7 after this release.

Anyhow, fast-forwarding back to 2008, System 7 is certainly a product of its time, and frankly has a difficult time holding up. It’s seldom mentioned when talk of early 90s releases is taking place, and despite the strong musicianship on display, remains lacking in anything one could identify as ‘classic.’ If you’re in the market for electronic music from that era, you’ll find definite worth in this album. However, for those instead just looking to get acquainted with System 7's discography, the Point 3 releases are a better starting point.

Written by Sykonee for TranceCritic.com, 2008. © All rights reserved


ACE TRACKS:
Habibi
Altitude
Miracle

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