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Systems Theory: Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies

The title says it all. You can imagine this music playing in the background while your favorite hollywood hunk and babe are Baja bound in their green Miata, or while Russia prepares for war and a ranting Hitler and ranks upon ranks of the German army fill the screen in a movie about the "Last Letters From Stalingrad". This music is about using your imagination, about zoning out while the electronic tones wash through you, about letting your open mind take you to far away places and fascinating situations.

Don't look for the conventional attributes of music on this CD. Melody isn't at a premium here, and the rhythm is very varied and sometimes almost non-existent. What you'll find instead is a record brimming with moods and tones and atmospheres. In private conversations with band members it was described as 'progressive-electronica', a fusing of the band members' musical preferences which range from electronic-ambient music through hard rocking, spaceprog and world music, to 1970s-era Tangerine Dream.

The band uses a good variety of instruments - including keyboards, violins, violas, guitars, mandolins, flutes and small percussion instruments. Keyboardist Mike Dickson is a Mellotron and Hammond/Leslie expert, and the liberal use of his many 'tron frames contributes to the widely varied sonic landscape. Listen for the solo flute sound. Unusual, and very clean. Add five guest artists, a large number of loops, sound samples and even a few small animals, and you're in an hour and a quarter of sonic experiences in which no two minutes are the same.

"One Step To Freefall" is a standout track. Very deep and laden with heavy psychadelia, but it is the simple, slow mid-range piano melody that has a particularly dark appeal.

Systems Theory is a 3-man project that has been simmering for many years, under various names and across two continents, and their debut release Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies is an interesting idea that works well. Just be aware that this is not a record you'll want to play in the background at your next dinner party. You have to work at this music, but your efforts will be well rewarded. Recommended.

In the interests of full disclosure - we're pleased that one of the three Systems Theory band members is Steven Davies-Morris, who is a friend and reviewer here at Sea Of Tranquility.
Track Listing:
  1. Green Miata Baja Bound (6:39)
  2. The Cool Vibe Of Asia C (5:44)
  3. Four Piece Suit (13:31)
  4. Silent Service (11:36)
  5. A Lifeboat, Tallulah And Me (5:00)
  6. Water Through Fingers (7:34)
  7. Zero Sum Equation (7:20)
  8. One Step To Freefall (7:12)
  9. Last Letters From Stalingrad (9:36)

Added: February 7th 2005
Reviewer: Duncan Glenday
Related Link: System Theory's Web Site
Hits: 7197
Language: english

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Systems Theory: Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies
Posted by Elias Granillo, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-02-07 22:20:51
My Score:

Before this luxury (or necessary evil) called the Internet, an EM enthusiast relied primarily on word of mouth and rags like Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Keyboard World for new signs of life on the seas charted by Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Jean-Michel Jarre, and others of their ilk who no longer produced as frequently after two decades of recording — or that which was, was of questionable quality. The month in late '88 that an ad for Wavestar's Moonwind ran in Musician is a perfect example: Wavestar (John Dyson and Dave Ward-Hunt) was a duo known only to EM fans in the UK, mainly. Another way to happen upon cool new electronic acts was to scour the new age and soundtrack sections (rock, too, which is where all of I.R.S.~No Speak's were placed) for "hidden grails" — more like a vulture looking for dead meat! Sometimes you got lucky; sometimes you were rewarded with yet more lounge jazz. Now, as teens, we only had so much dough to work with (and I certainly worked for mine), and online shops and auctions were still a thing of the not-too-distant future. But sometimes something leaped out at you, and you had to take the chance on that $10 cassette or $18 CD. The drill went something like this:
  • Did it sport a cool cover? (A snapshot of space like Moonwind or computer graphics like Metropolitan Suite.)
  • Did the titles sound cool? ("Siege Of The Cyborg Tyrant's Fortress," "Altosfear," "Final Circumlocution," etc.)
  • Was there any info pertaining to gear below the titles (usually not), or at least a pic of the artist at his or her rig? (The cover of Scott Duncan's Contemporary Salon does not count!)

    Corny it may seem, yet sometimes it paid off. That's how we first heard Mark Shreeve, Wavestar, Synergy, Software, William Orbit, Patrick O'Hearn, Emerald Web, Steve Roach and Richard Burmer, to name a few. How would SFIM have fit into this? Systems Theory — okay, a somewhat interesting group name or pseudonym. Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies — well, a title like that would have caused a small commotion. After a brief melée, the successfully "intercepted" SFIM tape or disc would've been taken to the front counter for purchase by the victor, after which we would have reconvened at his abode (with a brief stop at 7-11 for Super Big Gulps) for the Breaking Of The Plastic and the Listening Of The New. Ill feelings would have mixed with glee upon the realization that Systems Theory was a trio, just like Tangerine Dream! Ill feelings from the guys who didn't get to buy it, that is. How briskly those Maxell XL II's sold in those days!

    Systems Theory, as we all know by now, is the alliance between Greg Amov, Steven Davies-Morris, and Mike Dickson. The Theory is also much more than an electronic act; synths are ubiquitous, but pianos, organ, violin, and guitars are also spoken for. The Mellotron M400 (a real one) springs to regal life on these Movies — Dickson's 'Tron library isn't just limited to the traditional strings, choirs and flutes we're preconditioned to expect: bass clarinet, "mixed" brass, church organ, and one sample called "Ian McDonald Flute" also come into play, no pun intended. 'Tronheads will go nuts! While a suspiciously polyrhythmic method to the madness lends many of the tracks a thickset and often rockin' feel, the album does has its ambient moments, but even those aren't wholly devoid of dynamics like a few of, say, Steve Roach's exercises based on chained breve-tones and little else.

    "The Cool Vibe Of Asia C" doesn't resemble pornscore, not even vaguely. It's far too angular and textured, reasonably Djam Karet-esque in nature (and that title sounds like something they'd come up with, too!). "Four Piece Suit" is a surrealist thirteen-minute suite in four parts; the "Larks' Loons In Linen" segment is four too-short minutes of glorious 'Tron choir peppered by conveyor belt tech tones. "Silent Service" is a primer on "dynamic ambient" structures, with just the right quantity of errant timbre drizzled over the pervasive primal thump that recurs throughout much of the album. The drum programming is tops. Scattered piano notes, crashing shore waves, gulls and thunderclaps mark "A Lifeboat, Tallulah And Me."

    The first of the last trio of tunes, "Zero Sum Equation," is a most stupendous composition, one that awaits its cue in some yet-to-be-filmed opus of excess further on in Dario Argento's career. The 'Tron lines and drumming are spot-on — I say drumming because the programming is bound to fool most pairs of ears. Aided by guest Dun Strummin's lead guitar and the violin talent of Cyndee Lee Rule, aural glimpses of Wallenstein's debut, Ashra's Correlations, and Ponty's Civilized Evil flash throughout like a phantasmal rogue's gallery. It isn't often a track of such quality to match the old masters comes about — here's one.

    An almost-perfect amalgamation of Kraut rock, world music, and Frankfurt School, Berlin School, and melodic electronic styles, Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies is a labor of love for Messrs. Amov, Davies-Morris, and Dickson. From the trance rock of "Green Miata Baja Bound" to the marginally atonal piano motif of "One Step To Freefall," this is a certifiably kaleidoscopic journey. Overall, Side Two and Side Three are the more engaging two, but there is so much to absorb, some seesawing is only natural! I'm already looking forward to the sophomore Systems Theory release, which will bear the title of Codetalkers.

  • Systems Theory: Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies
    Posted by Michael Popke, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-02-05 20:54:49
    My Score:

    I'm not sure where to begin reviewing Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies. After all, what can I say that hasn't already been said by my esteemed colleagues at SoT? This album's progressive and experimental nature doesn't fit neatly into any one genre (or 10), but perhaps a solid starting reference is 1970s-era Tangerine Dream crossed with early Pink Floyd and — as the album's title implies — soundtracks to films only seen in the listener's mind. But then toss in world beats, space music, eclectic grooves and virtually no semblance of traditional melodies, and you've got a lush, gurgling electronic symphony that begs for your undivided attention.

    You should read the liner notes to this thing, in which the System Theory trio lists the instruments it uses: synthesizers, sequencer, MIDI electric and acoustic pianos, viola, fuzz violin, E-bow guitar, timpani, Hammond T500 organ, lots of percussion programming and loops, and most notably, Mellotron M400 (which replicates everything from a Russian choir to a bass clarinet).

    Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies is about as easy to listen to as it is to categorize - and I mean that in a good way - because something is always happening to keep your ears on their toes. The album opens, for example, with the alternately bubbling and simmering "Green Miata Baja Bound" before eventually segueing into the three-part "Four-Piece Suit," which evolves from droning sounds into lots of effects laden with King Crimson and Yes influences. Then come a trio of atmospheric pieces, punctuated with evocative mood pieces like "Silent Service" and "Water Through Fingers." More concrete melodies finally appear near the end of the CD, as synths mix with what sounds like acoustic guitars (but I doubt really are) and upbeat percussion on "Zero Sum Equation." Dance beats (gasp!) even find a place in "One Step to Freefall" — albeit with some ominous and even frightening sound effects in the middle. Closing piece "Last Letters from Stalingrad," on the other hand, is almost apocalyptic.

    While certainly not for everyone, Systems Theory makes challenging and ultimately rewarding music that requires listeners to let the sounds wash over and envelop them completely — preferably with headphones. Only then will Soundtracks for Imaginary Movies have its intended impact.

    Five points for effort and four for the result.

    Systems Theory: Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies
    Posted by Steve Pettengill, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-01-24 10:31:24
    My Score:

    Three years in the making, Systems Theory finally unleash their debut CD, Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies, an electronic music experience that invites you to kick back in your easy chair with a decent pair of headphones and an open mind. Sounds boring, doesn't it? Maybe for those who do not engage in active listening as Systems Theory requires that kind of audience participation hinted at in the album title.

    Though not a concept album per se, Soundtracks is split into three sections that are somewhat musically linked. "Side One" incorporates world music influences on "Green Miata Baja Bound" and "The Cool Vibe of Asia C". "Four Piece Suit" features nods to Phaedra era Tangerine Dream as well as King Crimson's Larks Tongues in Aspic and even 70s funk music. For clues, check out those amusing subsection titles.

    "Side Two" is the most ambient section beginning with the languid eleven minute "Silent Service". "Water Through Fingers" contains some nice and wholly unexpected tension as it climaxes and prepares the listener for the overtly dramatic "Side Three".

    "Zero Sum Equation" is practically full tilt symphonic rock and the copious usage of Mellotron choir and strings call to mind the horror film soundtracks of Fabio Frizzi. "Last Letters From Stalingrad" is genuinely terrifying in its intensity. Melancholy Mellotron strings fight for space with a tympani bolero beat before breaking into a freaky "Hitler sound collage". Then the piece moves into a cosmic folk section before a gradual and haunting fadeout on the Mellotron.

    Systems Theory are off to a great start and anyone into the aforementioned groups would do well to check out Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies. At 75 minutes, Soundtracks may be a tad too long, but I start to get antsy with any CD over the one hour mark. Yes indeed, Soundtracks is as epic as a David Lean film and the compositions may actually call to mind such films as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. The aural equivalent of Cinemascope perhaps?

    Systems Theory: Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies
    Posted by Yves Dubé, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-01-22 09:19:27
    My Score:

    Eastern transcendental meets rave house mix meets electronica meets Mike Oldfield meets Tangerine Dream… and that's just on side 1 of this tri-sided affair ( whose 3 sidedness seems about as useful as Nigel Tufnel's amp going to 11). Meditative, pastoral soundscapes engulf the listener and transport him on a Zen-like trek to his inner consciousness. A plethora of instruments creates a larger than life wall of sounds so dense that it's hard to imagine that the source is primarily a trio of musicians.

    If I had to pick a side (and isn't life always about picking sides?) I'd have to tip my hat to the triumvirate of tracks which makes up side 2. Whereas the closing opus on side one, "Four Piece Suit" flirts just a tad too much with dance beats to my taste, "Silent Service", " A Lifeboat, Tallulah, And Me", and " Water Through Fingers" flow together in a cohesive , tension filled package which seems to be constantly exploring and expanding. The listener loses site of the fact that this project is a collage of parts mailed in by the musicians from various sources.

    As far as individual track recognition is concerned, the honors go to " Zero Sum Equation". The "processed" so sound prevalent on the rest of the disc is minimized here and we get to hear a more organic sounding Systems Theory. Guest guitarists Brian Daly and Dun Strummin offer up some scintillating fretwork , which is front and center, and accentuated by some beautiful vioin courtesy of guest musician Cyndee Lee Rule. It is my honest belief that this balance of synthesized/ organic instrumentation is what works best for the group.

    Lastly, no review of this disc can be complete without mentioning the omnipresence of Mike Dickson's Mellotron M400 which permeates every track with chameleon-like impersonations of such varied instruments as a cor anglais , violin, cello, flute, church organ; to name but a few tricks up this magician's sleeve. His musical canvasses act as perfect backdrops for the entire soundtrack.

    Admittedly, this genre is not my usual fare. However, Systems Theory are much more than the theta-wave inducing fluff which usually falls under the New Age banner. Dare the voyage.

    Systems Theory: Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies
    Posted by Pete Pardo, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-01-16 09:54:30
    My Score:

    Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies is one of those CD's that you can easily put on when you simply want to drift away completely from your subsconscious and lose yourself in a lost dimension of your mind. This is not "driving in your car music", or "working out at the gym" music, but instead, this is music to be shared with yourself, during a time when you can block out all other thoughts and concentrate on the lush and spacey sounds created by Systems Theory.

    A song like "The Cool Vibe of Asia C" washes out of the speakers like pure silk, with rich ethnic tones created by Mellotron, flute, and violin, while the mighty Mellotron M400 once again is the star of the show on the haunting epic "Four Piece Suit". With an amazing array of synthesizers, analog keyboards, guitars, loops, and percussion, the three members of Systems Theory manage to create an alluring and intoxicating brew of invigorating and addictive tapestries of sounds here.

    While not so much prog rock as pure experimental world music, there are some proggy moments throughout the CD. "Water Through Fingers" features some neat tribal beats that accompany huge waves of eerie keyboards and Mellotron, reminding me a little of Goblin, and "Zero Sum" mixes Tangerine Dream electronics with searing David Gilmour-ish guitar work.

    This is a CD that I can highly recommend to lovers of spacey, meditative keyboard music. In fact, Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies might just be the best Mellotron album released in years. The mighty instrument is featured over the entire CD, and gives a haunting yet soothing impression each time it makes an appearance, which is often.

    » Reader Comments:

    Systems Theory: Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies
    Posted by Uschi Mitchell-Schrage on 2005-05-31 15:18:59
    My Score:

    When colleagues review their co-worker's work it's difficult not to think of dogs. Luckily, as in so many cases, our SoT friends prove to be unimpeachable. If anyone is still reading this then there might have arisen the question why I feel the need to add a bit when already so much has been said. The answer is simple; this album offers so much that there is still plenty left to say.

    The title of the album says it all. Since the invention of talking pictures composers of soundtracks have developed a musical language that has become common knowledge in the Western world, so much so that my son recently exclaimed: 'Ace, they are fighting' judging only by the sound of the music. Certain motifs represent genres of Western, oriental, love, crime, etc. We are able to identify film scenes when it is getting dangerous, horrible, wonderful or romantic just by listening to the soundtrack and System Theory is playing with this effect. By using the soundtrack motifs of conventional films we are guided through something much more complex: the actual story. This story is very complex, multi-levelled and it defies soundtrack conventions thus creating a tension between familiar and unfamiliar motifs. As already mentioned several times the album is demanding for its listeners and if it is true that good music should engage the listener in a dialogue with the music then Soundtracks for Imaginary Movies is clearly an excellent album.

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