If, as Muddy Waters sang, ‘the blues had a baby and they named it rock’n’roll’, then prog and electronic music clearly had a night of secret passion in a festival yurt and their spawn was ambient music. Steve Hillage was the midwife.
After jamming with Caravan and Spirogyra as a teenager, in 1975 Hillage took the brave leap from being de facto leader of psychedelic prog mob Gong into solo waters, with his mesmerising and underrated debut. Complex and heady, Fish Rising hinted at the pioneering career rebirth that he would enjoy in 1991 as System 7, the outfit that Hillage was inspired to form with Miquette Giraudy after hearing his records being played by highly influential 90s electro act The Orb.
His music had arrived just in time to soundtrack the comedown of a new generation of ecstasy-popping musical trippers. Hillage was there, cooling everyone’s boots, chilling them out.
System 7’s eleventh album is up there with the best of his work. A collaboration with Japanese prog/jam band Rovo, Phoenix Rising sees Captain Hillage and his prog pirates guide us through sonic seas that are sometimes tranquil, sometimes stormy, but always phosphorescent. Centrepiece of the EP that presaged the album’s arrival, the epic opener Hinotori is driven by a frantic rhythm section reminiscent of The Mars Volta or Mahavishnu Orchestra (whose track Meeting Of The Spirits they cover here). Sino Dub is the very same type of post-rave prog chillout music that made veteran progger Hillage an unlikely curator of the aforementioned ravers’ minds in the first place.
Ambient/chill-out music is of course commonplace now, in health spas and fringe festival tents the world over, but none of it has Steve Hillage’s searing guitar work at its centre. This isn’t just mood music, but something delivered with real soul as around him Rovo delve into techno, dub and jazz with an impressive deftness. There’s an obvious Popol Vuh, kosmische influence in Rovo’s sound and Hillage’s liquid playing creates a viscous sound that practically drips out the speakers throughout. You can almost see it.
It’s when their music is given room to breathe, as on 13-minute long Cisco (Phoenix Rising), that Rovo and System 7 really cut loose and take the listener on some exceptional journeys. Where other 70s exponents may have stuck to what they know, Hillage has always been a sonic explorer, embracing new forms and technologies and forever forging forwards, all of which makes him prog royalty in our book. Phoenix Rising is a rare trip of a record.