(All Album Reviews by Mysterious Traveller)
What is this crazy, exotic, ornate, tidal wave of sound?
With its washes of ancient mellotron and flurry of clean guitar notes over a digitized Middle Eastern motif…
What is this wonderful noise emanating from my loudspeakers?
The paper says it is a “Green Miata, Baja Bound”.
But as the sportster passes and fades from view there is another surprise… a funky surprise!
Oh yes, the “Cool Vibe Of Asia C” is on the ONE yo.
On the one with mellotron?!?
How could this be???
Just then, an alien from outer space in a “Four Piece Suit” descends from the sky and as his ship of multi colors circles in search of a place to land I am not afraid…
As he comes out of his craft there is a small machine floating beside him, which exudes a rhythmic pulse, eerily infectious but altogether extraterrestrial.
The being moves about as if dancing but splits in two and rejoins and explodes into many little beings, one samples our jazz and puts it in the tiny machine… then dancing back into their craft they disappear into the sky but they leave behind a new landscape.
The world seems like Suspension and Displacement… at the café I order a bowl of Djam Karet and the waiter brings it in “Silent Service”.
The next thing I know I’m in the ocean with a chick named Tallulah… just “A Lifeboat, Tallulah And Me” (and seagulls of course) and we float… ever so slowly into a river delta and upstream through desert canyons… dark desert canyons… the river widens and becomes glassy but the canyons become deeper… I turn around and Tallulah is gone! Dark clouds engulf the sky… there is a terrible storm brewing and I thirst but as I try and scoop up water, all I get is “Water Through Fingers”. My situation becomes desperate!
Just then, up ahead I spy a city. It is grandiose, majestic… it is… my city!
I have come full circle, a “Zero Sum Equation”. My journey flashes before me in a whirlwind of dizzying colors and then, at the edge of the city, a precipice! “One Step To Freefall”… dare I take it? I feel I must and so I fall, slowly, slowly, and fly, I fly up and over the bustling cities with everyone running around, busy little consumers buying this and that, always running, criss-crossing instruments, splashes of sound in a rhythmic symphony! The consumers are approaching mother Russia like The Blob. They seek to impose their will... and though the Russian people are anxious for change there are a reluctant few who write the “Last Letters From Stalingrad”. The sound of progress as the consumers build a new fast food joint gives way to the distant howl of ancestors who worked the land. The bell tolls as they lament.
An imaginary movie by L Perez inspired by Systems Theory
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I have now listened to this album both with headphones, multiple times without headphones, and on a long scenic drive as I drove to and fro the Napa Valley Wine Country. In each case, the music that this long distance band creates really changed my perception of what I saw, felt and heard as I listened (and with no other mind altering substances other than the music!).
There is quite a range of variety in color, timbre, arrangement and sound. I do NOT have a surround system in my car, but there are parts of this work, where it really sounded like I DID have a surround system in my car.
I would almost swear that certain sounds seemed to swirl around me, rather than just from side to side. It reminded me of Wendy (then Walter) Carlos' Sonic Seasonings, when back in the 1970's on my Bose 501s, it really sounded like it was coming through in quadraphonic sound. A friend of mine had the same experience without my mentioning it once when we were listening to it back in the day.
There is something about the recording of SFIM and the choice of sounds and arrangement that duplicates that effect.
I really like the use of sound as sound on this album. It reminds me of some of the great electronic music of the past (including Carlos' work), going all the way back to the early days of the form as well as the so-called “Musique Concrete” school of composition that used tape and pure sound and edited the tape to create “sound sculptures”. Here, quite often, the contrast between "pure" sound and sound effects and musical phrases and more "conventional" musical devices is quite well done. It is all very musical.
Though there are a myriad of influences that peek through at times, there is something very individual and unique about this literally global band. It is progressive with a capital "P", in that ST is not afraid to use any genre or flavor of music if it works within the context of what they are doing.
The production uses all instruments, musical techniques, sounds, and recording tools as part of the musical process. This goes all the way back to people like Phil Spector, on through the Beatles and the Beach Boys and many of the great artistic albums of the 60’s and 70’s by using the recording process as PART of the entire piece.
So too, the use of the computer and new technology for sound and recording (including loop based ideas and phrases) is used as if it too is an instrument and/or a factor in the musical process. There is often a morph-like quality to certain pieces that feels very satisfying and totally musical, while still exploring new ground.
There also seems to be a healthy tension between the feeling of improvisation and composition, as one sometimes can feel with a diverse spectrum of great bands ranging from King Crimson, Pat Metheny, Tangerine Dream, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report (especially old Weather Report), Oregon, Umphrey’s McGee and a few others. The game of “is this improvised or was it composed” becomes quite interesting as there seems to be a tight relationship between these two related but different ways of approaching creating music.
And of course, love that mellotron! I especially had to smile when the Ian MacDonald flute sound came out in the intro “Water Through Fingers”. It was nice to hear the contrast between some very hard electronic sounds and the sounds of the mellotron. This was another use of stretching the “tension and release” principle beyond mere consonance to dissonance back to consonance. It was also very refreshing to hear some mellotron sounds that we don't usually hear on those "rare" frames.
This ensemble and their friends who guest star, take the age old musical concept of tension and release to new places and play with it in new ways
All in all an outstanding work, and one that all involved should feel proud of. I know it sounds like hyperbole, but I truly feel that Systems Theory are pioneers and that this album is a milestone for progressive music and a genre bender.
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I hope the person who sent this is not expecting it back. This CD is awesome! I'm curious on what kind of movies would use this music (hopefully none like Torque) after listening to it. Systems Theory is Greg Amov, Steven Davies-Morris and Mike Dickson playing most everything except the kitchen sink with guests Cyndee Lee Rule, Dun Strummin, Diane Amov, Brain Daly and Michael Futreal. The music is layered and full of electronics and world music with some symphonic elements. I hear Ozric Tentacles, Hawkwind (especially in the Simon House-inspired violins) and Eloy in this, although the sound is very much its own. The tracks flow very nicely into each other, making a coherent but not monotonous album.
"Green Miata Baja Bound" is a beautiful combination of electronic and Spanish/Asian inspired music. "The Cool Vibe of Asia C" starts off reminding me of Eloy's Silent Cries and Mighty Echoes transitioning to a 1990's Hawkwind violin weaving its way through ethereal keyboards and flutes. "Four Piece Suit" is one of the two longest songs on the album. It starts off surreal, fading into a delicate synth and percussion ambling before gradually building up into a bass and drums drive and speeding along at a techno pace that shifts into a thudding bass and synth with jazz feel. "Silent Service" is the other epic of this album. This song is very reminiscent of Alan Davey's Captured Rotation material-heavy bass and ethereal keyboards creating a space-like soundscape.
"A Lifeboat, Talullah and Me" is slow keyboards and samplings of birds, thunder and some chick talking, although inaudibly, but it fades nicely in "Water Through Fingers", which starts off delicately before the more sinister sounds begin creeping in, like a shadow making itself more noticeable. It gradually builds up layer by layer into an Asian inspired melody with an ending that would probably be fitting for a scene overlooking ruins of a great empire. Definitely one of my favorites from this album.
Another Hawkwind-ish offering is "Zero Sum Equation". A very powerful piece featuring the Simon House inspired playing of Cyndee Lee Rule. "One Step to Freefall" seems to be a piano dominated exercise of cacophony, although not noise as it is a "freefall" of sound. The final track, "Last Letters From Stalingrad" is a dark piece, entering via a military drum thudding under ethereal keyboards and building up slowly, with samples of horses, before spinning off below a speech by Hitler, then coming back in at a running pace with keyboards and percussions and ending in a grim synth.
Overall, the album is arranged excellently and competently. All the elements work together and nothing stands out on any track like a sore thumb. I cannot recommend one track over another-they are all that good.
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In their most recent release Soundtracks for Imaginary Movies, System Theory manifests its own musical attitude and identity, while at the same time exhibiting a dearth of eclectic influences from the annals of progressive rock. The music on this disc ranges from classic symphonic, to funk-fusion, through electronic-ambient, world and techno-electronica. It’s all done extremely well; the level of musicianship, the quality of their recording process and a clean and thoroughly professional mix. Core members Greg Amov, Steven Davies-Morris, and Mike Dickson combine their multi-instrumental talents here in a project format that presents an exciting mixture of tones and talents, sounds and styles. A completely instrumental production, the performances of the core members is complemented by quality contributions from five guest players on various tracks. While the band’s musical influences are clear, and their music includes some nostalgic references, they have done an excellent job on this CD which combines those influences and styles in a new way with more modern and current sounds, and consistently comes across as authentically progressive.
One of the guest players, Brian Daly, is featured on guitar and other stringed instruments on the tracks “Green Miata Baja Bound” and “Zero Sum Equation”. Brian is a spectacular player with wonderful sound, soul and energy. He uses a harmonizer effect to good effect, which takes the listener ‘over the edge’ into far away spaces, high in the air where eagles soar. Brian’s playing certainly captures the spirit of progressive guitar in his style and reflects a number of influences. Some of his lines remind me a bit of Mike Oldfield, but Brian is a hotter and more dynamic player. The harmonizer, in places, makes the guitar almost a synthesizer, in places bringing up memories for me of progressive keyboardist some of Larry Fast’s solo synthesizer works. Actually, some of the synthesiser keyboard elsewhere on this disk is also reminiscent of the best of Fast, including some common borrowings from classical music motifs, such as from Holst’s The Planets. Elsewhere on the CD, Brian (I think) adds some solos more in line with some of guitarist David Gilmore’s work (think of Gilmore’s “Learning to Fly”).
While System Theory has no shortage of electronic and digital gear, there are numerous acoustic instruments in the mix as well. These include acoustic flute, violin, dulcimer and (drum roll please) timpani -- the real thing, not samples – that provide added texture, dimension, and warmth to System Theory’s cerebral electronic music. I have always loved the timpani. With every beat of the kettledrums, you can hear a percussionist declare his love for an instrument that is logistically less than convenient. Just like those struggling musos you see lugging a string bass or Sousaphone down the street, only a truly dedicated soul would fall in love with this instrument enough to acquire a timpani set of their own. And as listeners, we are all the more fortunate they do. I imagine those babies were no trivial matter to record properly, either. On the CD, you hear the timpani as if they are playing in the orchestra back row and you are seated mid-theatre. As an avid timpani aficionado, I would love more timpani from System Theory in the future as an instrumental solo, and heard from the front row if you please!
Some recording productions work best from the analogue world, some from the digital. It’s a challenge, and a rare accomplishment, for a recording to successfully mix sounds from these very different musical palettes and timbres. This recording rises to the challenge and often succeeds. In particular, the blending of the mellotron, digital samples, and acoustic timpani on the last track “Last Letters from Stalingrad” created a true, musical quality that aurally suggests time, place, and mood...even temperature.” In some places, such as the sixth track, “Water Through Fingers”, hearing the hybridised mix of keyboard sounds was, to my ears, inhomogeneous in places and a musical quality did not always coalesce.
There are no vocals on this instrumental CD, but the instruments often seem to speak and sing, and there are some sampled vocals parts and also several of the mellotron’s classic vocal choirs. If you like classic mellotron, you will find plenty on this disk. With many listeners sure to be thoroughly captivated by this anachronistic, mechanical tape-technology instrument, the ubiquitous use of mellotron on this disc is sure to be enjoyed and pose no problem to appreciating it. While I personally like the instrument, the place of the mellotron in music for me is fixed to a particular era and to music that will always be close to my heart. Listening to the mellotron sounds on this CD, I can’t help but recall sources from the past whenever I originally heard those lamenting flutes, impaling strings, and cavernous choirs. So for me, the mellotron’s sonic flashbacks were a bit of a distraction from System Theory’s very original music. Overall, I would have preferred more sparing use of the classic mellotron sounds. In certain places, however, it was interesting to hear these analogue tape sounds mixed with the more modern digitally synthesized and sampled sounds. Another classic synth in the mix sounds like a Yamaha DX-7. Some wonderful percussive sequencing on the CD was no doubt orchestrated on the DX-7. There also appears to be a Casio keyboard in the mix. I love the Casio keyboards sounds. While the Casio was never the most sophisticated or expensive synth on the market, its sounds were generally unique, interesting, and often surprising. The space where noise is on the verge of becoming music, or music becoming noise, has always interested me. Notably, in the track “One Step to Freefall,” System Theory has great success blending spacey sighs, the paroxysms of an astronaut on reserve air, and synthetic symphony of pink noise into a highly musically avant-garde improvisation. The mixing of diverse synthesiser sounds was especially effective on this track.
Thoughts on the marketing of this CD.
The front cover design graphics took a while to dawn on me. At first it appears that a golden ring is floating above a movie theatre’s royal purple stage curtain. On closer inspection, however, the ring can be seen to be a Mobius strip (the mathematically astute are familiar with this curious, single-sided geometric conundrum caused by creating a twist in a ring). Very apropos for a mathematically named group like System Theory. Later, it occurred to me that the purple “curtain” is actually at the same time a graph of a sound wave, as it might be displayed in music editing software. While this symbolism is clever, from a marketing perspective it might be advantageous make it obvious. Higher contrast images and more vivid colour might have been used to good effect. The “film” theme could have been emphasised using public domain movie stills to hint at what the music inside might be like (I’ve included some of my visual movie impressions in the track-by-track commentary below). Before people buy a CD they must first pick it up and take a look at it. Very often, the decision to buy will be based on admittedly superficial visual criteria. So I would encourage the band, which unmistakably has unquestionable depth in its music, not to neglect the superficial details of commercial cosmetic appeal.
Also, more information on the tray card and insert panels would be helpful. Because these pieces are layered in complexity, it would be more informative to have a track-by-track description of what is going on. I think people can appreciate music better when they understand the instruments involved, whether a track is a composition or improvisation, and possibly how the title relates to the musical piece. In the more symphonic tra