Ironically, one of South Africa’s more iconic metal bands in terms of musical identity, Ill System were acclaimed more widely abroad than here at home. Despite that fact, the band still trod down a deeper path through the local circuit than many others under the circumstances of the time-period; where the embattled local live music scene took bruising under what was something of a slump between the late 1990s until mid 2000s.
Founding members Bobby Addison and Owen Lowrey had begun laying the foundations of a band already in 1998, with the brick and mortar of what was to become Ill System finally taking form with a stable line-up in the year 2000. By the time they hit the live circuit in 2001, the band had already morphed into a well-developed sound which incorporated a plethora of each members diverse influences drawing from anything between Tool, Soulfly, The Prodigy and Jamiroquai! Perhaps most significantly, however, was a decidedly African undertone with the inclusion of a very percussive element into the metal, using a djembe drum as standard kit in the bands writing process.
“I don’t think Ill System ever set out to try and imitate anything. We were four guys with very different tastes and ideas in music and we worked really hard to make it all fit together. We learnt that compromise can sometimes lead to a much bigger and better collective output. We started experimenting with traditional African grooves and melodies, and adding some drop tuned riffs and percussion over this gave us a fresh sound that people responded too. I think we had always set out to push the boundaries of our abilities and open our minds to new ideas, and I think that we were successful in that.” ~ Bobby Addison (guitar, Ill System)
Whilst the bands overall sound would be described as nu-metal, Ill System had brought something fresh to the fore. Where other local bands like Pestroy were able to take the genre and make it their own, and to great effect on their local circuits, Ill System can be credited with taking the genre and reinventing it into a truly South African context.
“Personally, I loved the African percussion element. It made the band unique and truly South African. I’m naturally a primal drummer who focuses mainly on groove rather than speed, so it matches my style perfectly. Visually it’s also fun to see Sean as not only vocalist, but also as a percussionist in action.” ~ Ramone Pickover (drummer, Ill System / Arc Reactor)
Ill System‘s stature in the local scene spiked when they were invited to perform the first ever Whiplash event hosted by Dave Sass and Subterania Music (an event concept which was to become South Africa’s longest ever annual metal tradition spanning an entire decade before settling to a close in 2012) which toured the band from Cape Town to Pretoria in 2002. The band maintained a constant momentum locally until the entire act relocated to Wales (United Kingdom) in 2004.
It was in Europe where the band truly flourished. In 2006 Ill System participated in the international Emergenza festival, the world’s largest live platform for unsigned bands, and which includes a competitive element. Ill System finished out at the number one position for the entire UK leg.
“That was one Crazy time. Over three hundred bands entered the UK rounds from all over the country. We made it through the regional rounds held in Bristol and got in for the finals which were held at the Astoria in London. We sold tons of merch and then had to use the cash we made to pay for our band van to get unclamped….it was a crazy night.” ~ Bobby Addison
At the international finals in Germany, they fell short of first place at eighteenth position; still an amazing feat considering that the concept features literally thousands of bands from all over the world, and at that time including mostly leading economies.
“We got the chance to share the stage with some top international acts. Bloodhound Gang being one of them. One thing the competition did was teach us how to create an image, as effectively marketing ourselves was part of the competition. That’s really where the African element became very prominent in our imagery and music. It gave people something unique to identify us by.” ~ Bobby Addison
With most members now finally returned permanently to South Africa (the only exception being with bassist Owen Lowrey who still resides abroad) in 2014 after the official disbanding, it was decided to do a show tagged onto the line-up of drummer Ramone Pickover’s current band, Arc Reactor. Standing in for Owen on bass is Mike Cubic from Moment Of Clarity and With Dawn. The concert is taking place this Friday (22 August 2014) at Mercury Live in Cape Town along with Arc Reactor, Conduit, and another blast from past revisiting the stage, V.O.L. A facebook event outlines full details.