The Tangent Releases Latest Prog Masterpiece
Andy Tillison discusses the epic new album "Songs from the Hard Shoulder."
Hello again and thanks, as always, for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. Before I get into this week’s story, which is a review of the latest album from (primarily) UK-based progressive rockers The Tangent, I wanted to briefly mention that I just saw one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.
Last Friday, I drove over to Tampa to see Tears for Fears with special guest Garbage. Both bands were fantastic. There are some very mild spoilers in this paragraph, so if you’re planning to see this tour and want to remain unspoiled, just skip down to below the divider.
Tears for Fears boldly performed the bulk of the band’s new album, The Tipping Point, along with several of the band’s biggest hits and concert staples. I knew going in what the setlist would be, and I was fine with it.
Many legacy bands would have maybe sprinkled in two or three songs from the new album among all the old favorites. Bands generally try to give their fans what they want, and — let’s face it — many people just want to show up and see these legacy acts play their hits. But The Tipping Point is a terrific album. The live performances of the new songs not only worked great, but proved that these new tunes have a rightful place alongside classics like “Mad World,” “Shout,” “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
Were there songs left out that I would have loved to have seen? Sure, but that’s always the case. I have connected with the new material on a deep level — to the point that several of these new ones brought me to tears during the show. This was one of my best concert experiences ever and I highly recommend seeing this tour if it swings by your area. And if you like TFF at all, pick up the new album. We’re nearly halfway through the calendar year and it’s by far my favorite release of 2022 so far.
OK, with that brief plug for an excellent concert tour out of the way, let’s get into this week’s story.
UK keyboardist and composer Andy Tillison originally formed The Tangent with other top-notch progressive rock musicians from across Europe as a one-off side project from his main musical interest, Parallel or 90 Degrees. The Tangent released The Music that Died Alone in 2003 and it became an instant modern prog rock classic. The progressive rock community embraced the album, which received a staggering (yet deserving) amount of airplay from online streaming prog radio stations and was talked about extensively on message boards.
Frankly, it blew up, and here we are — nearly 20 years later — and that project is now a band that just released its 12th studio album, Songs from the Hard Shoulder, on June 10.
“I just ended up doing a side project and the side project was very, very proggy,” Tillison told me via Zoom, calling in from his home in the Yorkshire countryside in England. “I was kind of having fun doing some proper prog, and that turned into the basics for The Music that Died Alone by The Tangent. That got heard — thanks to a guy called Ian Oakley — by Roine Stolt (of Swedish proggers The Flower Kings) and we put together this band as a one-off. And (The Music that Died Alone) outsold all the other records I've ever made in my life in four weeks.”
The project-turned-band took its name as an extension from Tillison’s existing band, Parallel or 90 Degrees.
“It was a pun on the name of the other band,” Tillison said. “Parallel or 90 Degrees, that’s sort of fairly mathematical stuff, and yeah, so OK here’s a tangent from it. In the end, The Tangent became the main line. And I still miss Po90, because I think that was the band that should have been a success for me but wasn't. I think people probably have started to notice that, gradually, The Tangent’s finding its way back to being Po90 after a long time. I think that's what's happening.”
The best way to describe The Tangent’s music to someone who has never heard it is difficult to discern. It’s base style is progressive rock that’s heavily influenced by, and infiltrated with, jazz rock — except when it isn’t. The Tangent mixes elements of all the styles of music that Tillison and his mates enjoy, which has at times included parts or entire outright songs incorporating Canterbury, funk, punk, electronica, ambient, and even disco. Many of the band’s compositions stretch out to great lengths, and the band has produced more songs that exceed 20 minutes than just about anyone ever has done before.
Despite the lengths of The Tangent’s songs, they keep listeners enthralled. That’s partly due to keeping things interesting musically, but it’s also in no small part due to Tillison’s ability to tell compelling stories in his music. His love of musical storytelling developed quite early.
“My very first favorite record, I suppose it was Peter and the Wolf, the old (Sergei) Prokofiev thing,” Tillison said. “Just a fantastic story, and I think the fact that I loved that story so much and the way the musical instruments represented the different animals and the different characters in the story. That was the beginning of me beginning to appreciate the idea of musical storytelling, which is something I've tried to do ever since.”
The Tangent has a long and distinguished list of former members, including guitarists such as Stolt, Krister Jonsson, and Jakko Jakszyk, drummers Zoltan Csörsz, Jaime Salazar, and Gavin Harrison, multi-instrumentalists Guy Manning, Sam Baine, and David Jackson, and vocalists David Longdon and Göran Edman. Most of the musicians who have come and gone did so several years ago. The current incarnation of the band has been together for five years and most of the current members have been around longer than that.
The band as it now stands is Tillison (keyboards, vocals), Theo Travis (sax, flute), Luke Machin (guitar), Jonas Reingold (bass), and Steve Roberts (drums). The five musicians are not only outstanding individually but also blend together well.
“The band came into existence as a kind of side project for me, but also a side project for Roine, a side project for Jonas, and everybody in the band to start with was also involved in something else. And consequently, we kept on going around and we just kept on picking up people to replace people who weren't available, but they were in the same sort of situation,” Tillison said of the nearly constant turnover in the band’s first several years of existence. “This particular lineup of the band, not counting Steve, who joined us in 2017, has been running since 2014. So, the band's been a pretty constant thing now. You know, I don’t have to wake up in the morning and think, ‘Who is the bass player at the moment?’”
Songs from the Hard Shoulder consists of four completely original Tangent tracks and a partial cover song as a bonus track. Of the five tracks, only one is less than 16 minutes long.
The album opener, “The Changes,” is one of The Tangent’s best epics to date. Tillison wrote the 17-minute piece about the pandemic, with a narrative — about being on tour with his friends — taken from actual events. It was a reflection of good times as Tillison wondered if the band will ever visit those places again. The song goes through the typical Tangent twists and turns, with the highlight being a sublime Machin solo near the end, with a guitar tone that reminiscent of Allan Holdsworth’s.
“That was (written) sat in a valley during the first lockdown, experiencing the beautiful quiet of the world that descended upon it, during the most beautiful spring I ever remember,” Tillison said about the song’s origin. “Actually it was a very inspiring time, and I just knew I wanted to write this thing about my feelings about lockdown and the people I was missing, and I couldn’t see my family, and all that sort of stuff. So, I put a lot into that.”
“The GPS Vultures” is another 17-minute venture. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because this song is a variation on the song “GPS Culture,” which appeared on The Tangent’s 2006 release, A Place in the Queue.
“It’s just a classical variation,” Tillison said. “It’s like building a new house with the same Lego. So, essentially, I used some of the same shapes, some of the same structures, and then made a completely different piece out of it. You can hear little leitmotifs from the original ‘GPS Culture’ popping in now and then, but for the most part it’s a brand new piece. I think it does show that an idea can go in so many different directions, that one can turn into a quite poppy prog song, because that’s one of our most accessible and recognizable tunes — a sort of song that, whether we like it or not, we have to have it ready to play when we’re doing gigs. And, of course, ‘GPS Vultures’ is a completely wild instrumental. It’s more of a sort of musical fireworks display, I think.”
“GPS Vultures” allows all of the band members to shine individually, while playing as a collective. It’s the jazz-rockiest number on the record and it will fulfill Tangent fans’ thirst for the kind of technical artistry the band is known for while still remaining accessible.
The album’s epic centerpiece is the 20-plus-minute “The Lady Tied to the Lamp Post,” a beautiful song with striking lyrical imagery. It’s a song based on Tillison’s chance encounter with a homeless woman who had literally tied herself to a post on a cold night so that she wouldn’t fall over and hit her head.
“I was on my way home from this Christmas party in Leeds and it was a very, very cold night, and I found a woman tied to a lamp post — almost tripped over her,” he said. “She asked me if she could have some money and I didn’t have any. I offered her a cigarette, and she told me a little bit about how she’d come to be there and why she was tied to a lamppost. She did mention that only a few weeks earlier she’d had a job and everything.
“And I went home and I wanted to write about her. I just suddenly had this moment where I was just kind of, ‘Andy, what the fuck will that do for her?’ And the fact is that I did write that song eventually, and that came out in the lyrics. Somewhere on my way home I was thinking of music and lyrics and not her anymore. She doesn’t need a song written about her. She won’t even know that this has happened. What we need to do is solve that problem.”
The problem of homelessness was a personal one for Tillison, who told me he was briefly in that situation.
“Everybody who feels something for a homeless person has this moment where they put themselves in their situation,” he said. “Sort of, ‘Could that happen to me?’ Of course, the fact is that I know it can happen to me, because for a very short period of time, it actually did. So, I know what it’s like to be in the center of town, in the cold, with nowhere to go for several nights, and the feeling that you have as the night falls is one of terrible foreboding. Those nights last forever. It’s really horrible. You just cross this line, and suddenly you go from being someone to being nobody, simply by a factor of what your bank account says about you on that particular day.”
Aside from the powerful lyrical message of “The Lady Tied to the Lamp Post,” there is a lot to like about the song from a musical perspective. Machin channels David Gilmour with some delicate guitar work at the start, with some light keyboard work from Tillison, offset by electronic percussive sounds and a somber vocal.
She’s got no one in the world
She’s got nothing in the world
The pace picks up and sets the song off on the usual, wonderful Tangent musical journey, while Tillison weaves the vocal narrative. Travis adds some wonderful color with his sax playing (early, and then his flute later in the track) and Reingold and Roberts shine particularly brightly during a funk-inspired section.
It’s difficult not to be moved by the self-recrimination in Tillison’s lyrics and vocal delivery. Anyone who has ever walked past a homeless person, even if they’ve stopped to give them money, has that moment where they think there’s more they could, and should, be doing — that what they’ve just done isn’t going to fix the underlying problem. It’s a hopeless feeling. “The Lady Tied to the Lamp Post” conveys that, brilliantly.
The song ends with a fadeout of Tillison reciting spoken lyrics about the ways that the government has tried to deal with homelessness in unethical ways, such as putting them on trains out of town with one-way tickets and altering benches to prevent them from sleeping on them. It’s a moving end to the song that conveys Tillison’s anger and frustration, yet the quiet delivery creates a fascinating tonal juxtaposition.
The final original on the album is the only song of “normal” length — at just over four and a half minutes. “Wasteful Soul” is a song inspired by the Tamla-Motown sound and new keyboard patches that Tillison added to his synth arsenal.
“There’s nothing quite like a new instrument to inspire, from time to time,” he said. “I just got this particular set of patches for the synthesizer that sounded like horns and I’ve always just loved that big old sort of Tamla sound — kind of that particular big, brassy period when Ike and Tina Turner were recording in a studio with a massive band.”
The bonus track included on Songs from the Hard Shoulder is an interesting one. The Tangent’s members are apparently unanimous in their love for the short-lived classic progressive rock band U.K. Because of that, the band, which has recorded covers before but always live versions of something they’ve performed at concerts, released its first studio cover, “In the Dead of Night.”
However, in true Tangent fashion, the band didn’t perform a straight cover. It starts with the U.K. track more or less faithfully performed, but then launches into an original section of what The Tangent would have done in the middle part had it been their song to begin with (the middle “Tangential Aura” section of the track). The whole thing stretches out more than 16 minutes and once again allows these five musicians to flex their musical muscles. Machin’s guitar solo just over three minutes in is a personal favorite moment on this track for me.
Songs from the Hard Shoulder only adds to The Tangent’s impressive catalog of modern prog/jazz rock. While it’s unlikely to convert anyone who previously didn’t like their offerings, it seems like it will appeal greatly to fans of this style of music and previously existing Tangent fans.
Unfortunately, this material isn’t likely to get any live play anytime soon. Tillison admits he’s not yet come out of his “COVID shell” and said The Tangent couldn’t financially take the hit if the band had to cancel a gig due to someone testing positive. Additionally, there are demands on some of the performers’ time that is somewhat prohibitive at the moment, such as Reingold’s participation on Steve Hackett’s world tour, Machin appearing with Karnataka, and Travis having some Soft Machine commitments.
While the band may not be touring the album, Tillison is staying busy and said he’s working on material for the next album. But for now, Songs from the Hard Shoulder will give Tangent fans plenty of tasty prog on which to chew.
The GPS Vultures
The Lady Tied to the Lamp Post
In the Dead of Night/Tangential Aura/Reprise (bonus track)
For my entire interview with Andy Tillison, check out the video below or Episode 66 of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast, which is available wherever podcasts are distributed, including Spotify, Apple, Google, Pandora, Goodpods, Podchaser, and more. Andy discussed his exposure to progressive rock and how he fell in love with Close to the Edge by Yes, his journey into The Tangent, the stories behind some of his band’s most beloved songs, and much more.
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