Rovo & System 7 – ‘Phoenix Rising’ Album Review

Rovo & System 7

“Phoenix rising” is a collaborative effort between Rovo, a Japanese progressive rock / jam band and System 7, the psychedelic ambient project of Steve Hillage (Gong / Khan). This genre-melting culture clash of a record perfectly forms the missing link between progressive rock (in the vein of King Crimson), jazz (Mahavishnu Orchestra) and the ambient work of the Orb – it’s an endlessly evolving musical feast that draws upon a number of familiar forms and sends them spinning off down a unique pathway that is all their own. Whilst this is hardly music for the mainstream, those who are interested as to the twists and turns that led Youth (Killing joke) to end up working with a group of DJs on a project that ultimately gave up referencing Pink Floyd and simply asked David Gilmour to join them will find much to admire in the richly carved soundscapes that appear here.

Comprising seven lengthy tracks, the opening number is ‘Hinotori’ which is, rather confusingly, “a reworking of the brilliant Rovo live rock adaptation of System 7’s “Hinotori”, fully based on the live band with soaring guitar and violin solos”. To this nugget of press information, we might add that the song is awash with swirling ambient effects that recall Orbital’s seminal ‘insides’ album and an energetic, jazzy beat that could only be the product of two drummers working in symbiotic thrall to one another. It’s a bright, breezy opening which captures the spirit, rather than the sound, of the sun-dappled Canterbury scene perfectly. ‘Love for the phoenix’, is, in contrast, a much more techno-orientated track, based roughly on System 7’s “habibi”, which taps into the raw emotion still felt after Japan’s recent tragedy, but which suggests a powerful rebirth rather than a hopeless sense of loss. Chanting weaves in and out of the mix and the pounding beat gives the song a more straightforward feel reminiscent of Leftfield and Orbital, the pulsing electronica always moving the listener forward through the simmering synths and haunting violin.

Moving in a more jazz-orientated direction once again, ‘meeting of the spirits’ sees Rovo covering Mahavishnu Orchestra (albeit in a simplified form) but what will make the jaw drop is the percussive might of the two drummers, once more working in tandem to create a marvellous, life-affirming energy that easily invigorates the listener. The organic nature of the music strikes a strong contrast to the heavily processed track that preceded it and the eastern feel of the music does much to transport the listener to far-flung and exotic lands. ‘Cisco (Phoenix rising)’ opens as a smooth, trippy number complete with lysergic beat and echoing leads. However, with Steve Hillage having developed a whole new mid-section for the track and time changes worthy of vintage genesis, the song effortlessly stretches the listener’s preconceptions and spins off in wholly unexpected directions over the course of its run time. It is an easy favourite on the album and one that repays multiple replays, always revealing some new element hitherto missed amidst the complex patterns that emerge.

One of the most interesting tracks on the album has to be ‘unbroken’ which opens as pure electronica (courtesy of System 7) only for Rovo to take over and develop the same musical themes around half way through using traditional instruments. It is a brave manoeuvre and one that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does, exact that the musical sympathy between System 7 and Rovo seems to be so complete that the members of one can read the other perfectly, with the result that the track is a fascinating, experimental track of ambient wonder. ‘Sino dub (Phoenix rising)’ again takes a live Rovo track and throws layers of System 7 programming at it. The result is a thunderous, tribal take on ambient, the beats perfectly underscoring the jazz-infused jamming of Rovo. The final track, ‘unseen onsen’ closes the album on a dreamy ambient note that taps into that same vein of spacey, spiritual music that Gong moved towards on their latter albums. Hints of Orb (‘Slug dub’ sans the eccentric story), Gong and yes all float through the mix on this peaceful album closer.

‘Phoenix rising’ is not an album that will find favour with everyone. It targets a very specific niche audience, and ultimately it favours ambient over either progressive or jazz, although those genres are often well-represented. It is a peaceful, relaxing and often imaginative album that has a number of unique elements – in many ways it is the album that the Orb should have made with Dave Gilmour, combining live instrumentation and synthesisers with far greater aplomb. Progressive rock, in particular, has had a long association with the world of ambient and electronica (indeed there are some who argue, and justifiably, that the progressive world’s lengthy, spacey jams, gave birth to ambient) and those who appreciate the meditative powers of lengthy progressive jams will undoubtedly find much to admire here, but it is possibly an album to approach with caution if you have not heard it’s like before. Innovative, peaceful, suffused with hope, ‘Phoenix rising’ is a beautiful, intriguing and eccentric release and is worth exploring.

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