It’s surely about time Steve Hillage got the recognition he so richly deserves, as this beautifully packaged Searching for the Spark anthology clearly illustrates.
Since the late Sixties, the guitarist has been at the forefront of psychedelic, experimental music, continually pushing the boundaries of rock - and latterly dance - into uncharted territories.
The limited edition, lavish boxset features a mammoth 22 discs, including remastered versions of his eight solo albums, six live recordings plus a further four exclusive discs of demos, outtakes and previously lost material, much of it garnered from Hillage’s own private collection.
A devotee of Hendrix, Hillage moved to Canterbury as a student in the Sixties, a city which he was delighted to discover was home to two of his favourite bands Soft Machine and Caravan. He got to meet his musical heroes and went on to become a crucial member of the hugely influential Canterbury scene, jamming and sharing ideas with like-minded musicians. His recording career began in 1969 with Arzachel, available here for the first time in decades. Pure, unadulterated prog rock, although it has aged more than his other recordings it still encompasses elements of the nascent Hillage sound which he has honed over the past 48 years.
All of the CD reproductions of his albums from Arzachel to the first eponymous System 7 release are presented as mini versions of the original long players, complete with cardboard sleeves. There’s a hardback, 188-page coffee table book charting his career, amusingly illustrated with a long-haired Seventies portrait of Steve staring into space on the cover, and on the flip side a close-up of the back of his head, with the cropped style he favours today. Inside, press clippings, flyers, photos and interviews illustrate his constant reinvention and the influences Hillage has had on contemporaries and latterday acts. Add to that a host of memorabilia - two lyric booklets, a plectrum, an enamel badge, three promo posters from his Virgin years and a signed certificate of authenticity – and you have a mind-boggling historical archive, charting a hugely important era of British music.
From Canterbury Hillage went on to become an integral member of lysergic gurus Gong, playing on the collective’s seminal Teapot trilogy, cited as a huge influence on an array of diverse acts from Ozric Tentacles to Acid Mothers Temple and the Insane Clown Posse.
In tandem with his solo career, he’s produced a host of other bands, including Simple Minds and the Charlatans but it was a chance meeting in the late Eighties which prompted him to embrace a new musical direction.
The 1979 solo album Rainbow Dome Musick had gained a new lease of life after being adopted by the Acid House scene - its swirling, hypnotic tracks provided the perfect soundscape to chill out rooms. At Heaven, the London club which spearheaded the movement in the capital, Hillage witnessed The Orb’s Alex Paterson using it as the backbone to his ambient set, layering different beats over his trademark sliding, gliding guitars. The seeds of an idea were sown. And, together with his long-term partner, muse and accomplished musician in her own right, Miquette Giraudy, they formed the loose electronic collective System 7
The band’s first release in 1991, featuring dance legends Paul Oakenfold, Youth and Derrick May alongside Paterson, is the final CD featured here together with outtakes and demo versions. It still sounds fresh. As System 7, Hillage has since gone on to release a further 12 albums plus three more under ambient offshoot Mirror System.
Weighing in at a hefty 5kg, Searching for the Spark is part historical archive, part labour of love to an underrated British genius. It’s a fitting commemoration of the master guitarist’s huge opus and goes some way to setting the record straight. I’m looking forward to the next chapter.
Searching for the Spark is out now on Madfish
System 7 are playing at Bearded Theory, Noisily, Kozfest and Equinox festivals in the UK this summer