It is something that not everyone wants to admit, whether they are fans of progressive rock or techno, but the sounds that swept raves and underground dance clubs in the late eighties and early nineties can be traced back entirely to the prog rock and synth pioneers of the sixties and seventies. Pink Floyd drenched their classic albums ‘dark side of the moon’ and ‘wish you were here’ with innovative synth patterns and bands from the Orb to Killing Joke (who, unsurprisingly also shared personnel) sat up and took notice, The Orb even taking their fixation so far as to invite David Gilmour to collaborate on the ‘Metallic spheres’ project. Similarly acts like Genesis, Yes and Gong all pioneered the latest synth technology of the day with varying degrees of success, Genesis even turning in a viable alternative to the gritty sounds of Depeche Mode with 1986’s hit single ‘tonight, tonight, tonight’. Of all the musicians of the progressive movement to truly embrace modern technology, Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy (both members of eccentric prog act Gong) are surely the two who embraced the new sonic opportunities the most whole heartedly. System 7, formed in 1991, was not only a direct reaction to The Orb (whom Steve had heard playing ‘Rainbow dome musick’) but also it was successful enough to attract several of its members at various points with both Alex Paterson and Youth passing through the ranks. Tonight, therefore, is a celebration of the critical meeting point between progressive and techno with Japanese jam band Rovo representing the blazing spirit of progressive rock with their lengthy and innovative jams and System 7 representing the beating progressive core that exists at the heart of techno, the peak of the evening being the stage-filling collaboration between the two that closes the night.
Up first, and to a small but remarkably loud crowd, are Rovo who play lengthy and remarkably beautiful jams which rise from hypnotic beginnings; with Yuji Katsui’s electric violin sinuously wrapping itself around Seiichi Yamamoto’s fluid, David Gilmour esque guitar work; only to end in tumultuous outpourings of sound underpinned by Jin Harada’s throbbing bass and propelled by the immense, tribal percussion of dual drummers Yasuhiro Yoshigaki and Youichi Okabe. Indeed, it is this immense heartbeat that gets a solo airing, after an initial two epics have been dispensed with, to the amazement and delight of the growing audience, and it’s fair to say that few will have seen so incisive and exciting a drum solo as Leamington Spa bore witness to. Rovo’s sound is spacey, hypnotic and involving and it leaves the audience thirsty for more.
A very different prospect is System 7, a duo who deal in heavily processed ambient dance. Formed of Steve Hillage, who stands behind a pile of glittering synths with a midi guitar in hand, and Miquette Giraudy who manages to even outdo Steve with a wall of synths so high it looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. The duo’s music is like a sonic shockwave, the over-amped bass and hyperactive beats roving into industrial territory from time to time, particularly when Steve unleashes furious hell on his guitar, the mischievous rocker unable to resist decimating the venue with wave after wave of churning ambient noise. It’s only when you see the pair in action that you realise how visceral ambient dance has the potential to be when carved out by real musicians and, from the appreciation shown by the blissed out and steadily growing crowd, it is clear that System 7 have a sizable and vocal following.
Finally it is time for the main event and the venue has filled up appreciably. With the stage decked out with flickering lights and projected backdrops, it’s a mesmerising collision of technological chic and progressive mysticism. The combined forces of Rovo and System 7 are, arguably, better than their constituent parts, the interplay between Steve Hillage and Yuji Katsui in particular being a joy to watch. The band open with ‘Hinitori’ which pits liquid slide guitar against Yuji’s soaring violin and from then on they don’t put a foot wrong, their music taking everything from haunting progressive to evil folk rock. The crowd stand in awe for the first few minutes, clearly processing the audiovisual stimuli flooding from the stage before, one by one, they start to dance until half the dance floor is heaving with moving bodies. In an age where crowds all too often stand stock still with an ‘impress me’ attitude, it’s gratifying to see an audience so clearly moved by the music. Highlights are impossible to pick out with the music merged into one lengthy kaleidoscopic jam that takes the album’s tribal beats and swirling music and fuses it into one huge progressive jam that phases in and out of focus like the multi-coloured backdrop that casts psychedelic patterns across the musicians.
It is a vast musical celebration, a triumphant airing of one of last year’s most unexpected musical treasures and a fitting tribute to the lasting impact that progressive rock has had on a wide variety of musical forms. The power of music to bridge cultural divides is no more obvious than in this collision of East and West and the obvious enthusiasm that both bands bring to the project is obvious as various musicians roam the stage, taking their turns in the spotlight and then retreating to allow others to carve their own niche. The interaction with the audience is also delightful and seeing the crowd slowly absorbed and moved by the music only underscores the power that lies at the heart of both bands. Surely one of the year’s most unique shows, Rovo and System 7 proved triumphant in Leamington Spa.
Photography : Jola Stiles