Issue 2011-043: The Tangent - COMM - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: The Wiki Man (20:14), The Mind's Eye (8:14), Shoot Them Down (6:45), Tech Support Guy (5:51), Titanic Calls Carpathia (16:31)
Alex Torres' Review
The Tangent's sixth studio album, COMM, is an excellent addition to the band's canon of progressive music, which can already be considered indispensible for all fans of the genre. The band may have had more than its fair share of line-up changes in recent years but leader Andy Tillison has worked wonders in recruiting notable replacements. It's safe to say that, whether on record or live, The Tangent always deliver excellent musicianship.
It's also fair to say that the band do not break any new musical ground with COMM: the sound is an extension of a methodology established on earlier albums, although perhaps the influence from the "Canterbury Sound" is not as strong as on the earliest ones. However, Theo Travis - who is a member of Soft Machine Legacy, as well as partaking in numerous other ventures with the likes of Robert Fripp and Steven Wilson - continues to contribute to The Tangent and delivers some juicy jazziness via his saxophone and flute embellishments and it is principally he - together with Tillison in his own jazzier moments – that maintains that link.
Overall, The Tangent's musical methodology might be described as being relatively conventional melodic songs immersed in a musical sea of keyboards-led instrumental wizardry. The instrumental diversions mean that the style does not suit mainstream pop, although the basic melodies and the singing are pleasant enough for that medium, but followers of progressive music should always find much to enjoy. Fans of keyboards will particularly enjoy Tillison's excellent playing, and he always conjures up interesting textures from his synthesizers to go with his compositions. Amongst the influences we can find Canterbury, Yes, Peter Hammill and Tangerine Dream: mesh them together with the band's own ideas and you have a unique sound that The Tangent have now made their very own.
One of Tillison's strengths as band leader is in allowing the members of the band free rein to develop their own musical ideas given the basic melodic framework. I've already mentioned Travis, but another highlight is the guitar playing of Luke Machin. Those of us lucky enough to have seen him play live already know what a superb guitarist he is, and now the proof is here on disc for all to hear. Mellifluous, sensitive, gutsy, joyous, wonderful. This is music like the finest of red wines: smooth, silky, immediately tasty with a lingering afterglow that lasts in the memory, and a quality that keeps you coming back for more.
The rhythm section on the album is provided by Jonathan Barrett (bass) and Nick Rickwood (drums). Barrett, of course, has been Tillison's long-standing collaborator on various projects and has recently decided to leave the band: fans will miss him. He has, however, left the band a wonderful leaving present in the form of one of the album's outstanding highlights, the sublime Shoot Them Down, a song which deals with the exploitation of the "working classes" in times of war, as well as in times of peace. Shoot Them Down is rock at its best: where the music and lyrics mesh perfectly to evoke a deeply emotive perspective on the exploitation of millions of people. Unsurprisingly, it draws some superb performances from the band. Originally written in the Eighties, in response to the Thatcher Government's clashes with the miners, it has gained new life in the current economic depression: the juxtaposition of a poem written by one of the striking miner's wives early in the song is a stroke of genius. Barrett's lead vocal is replete with the emotion that the song requires: the singing voice is similar to Tillison's, so it is to be hoped that the song finds its way into the live set!
Shoot Them Down exemplifies another aspect of The Tangent's music that needs highlighting to any newcomers to the band: the lyrics are always deeply interesting. I'm not one that is usually interested in lyrics, because they are usually banal! With The Tangent, they are never banal. Tillison, who is the main song-writer, is an astute sociological observer. He tells stories, often ones that continue from album to album – hence his assertion that The Tangent are a "concept band". These stories are full of sharp commentary and witty, wry observations about our modern day age. Often, the lyrics are deeply moving; at other times funny. An absolutely indispensible part of The Tangent! COMM is no different in this regard and Barrett's Shoot Them Down fits the mould, lyrically as well as musically.
The album features two "major", long compositions. This strategy has the downside of putting great pressure on them: if they fail, then that affects the album significantly. However, as on previous albums, both these works deliver excellent music and lyrics. My predilection, being a romantic, is for Titanic Calls Carpathia. This is a witty snapshot review of the history of electromagnetic communications: from its opening sounds of the sea and the recalling of the lives saved from the Titanic, courtesy of the distress radio transmission that was sent out, it takes you on a factual and fictional trip, reflecting on such events as the Apollo 13 mission and the visit in ten thousand years' time by the aliens who were intrigued to find out "who was making all the noise"! On the other hand, if you're a pragmatist, then you may well prefer The Wiki Man's more sober and brooding look at how we use the internet. This track features a piano and synthesizer solo from Andrew Roussak, winner of an internet competition to provide a section for this composition. It is perfectly integrated into the whole. As an aside, I have to say how ironic it is that I, and others, are here reviewing The Wiki Man: after all, I am the Wiki Man. So, possibly, are you!
The songs I've not yet mentioned are The Mind's Eye and Tech Support Guy. Arguably, The Mind's Eye fits in with Tillison's "communication" concept for his own songs, in that it deals with how we fool ourselves, but that might be stretching the remit of the concept too far. Irrespective, it's a powerful song in its own right, containing the heaviest sections on the album. Tech Support Guy, on the other hand, does fit the concept by taking a humorous and very funny look at the modern computer-dependant office environment through the eyes of Adam, your friendly computer support engineer. It's a superb song, containing some lovely jazzy moments.
The album is paced perfectly: The Wiki Man and The Mind's Eye both have slow, quiet sections amidst faster paced ones; these are followed by the emotional journey of Shoot The Down; which is then offset nicely by the humour of Tech Support Guy; and Titanic Calls Carpathia is awesome as the closing number; it gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.
This album has to be one of the must-buys of the year. If you order from the band's website – always the best option as far as the band themselves are concerned – there are a variety of special offers available that you can't obtain anywhere else, some of which include Tillison's latest solo album, Murk. The vinyl edition of the album only has three tracks - The Wiki Man, The Mind's Eye and Titanic Calls Carpathia - but in every possible instance the record package also includes the CD disc with all the tracks. The limited edition CD Digipacks include two "bonus" tracks: The Spirit Of The Net, inspired by Rush, and Fantasy Bootleg. This latter track allows you to gauge the band's wicked sense of humour, as Fantasy Bootleg is a "cover version" of a fictitious cover version of Genesis's Watcher Of The Skies as done by Yes! It features two members of the Yes tribute band SeYes on vocals and has already become infamous through its exposure on YouTube! Finally, the album's evocative artwork is once again, after a short break, provided by Ed Unitsky.
Why should you buy a record/CD rather than download (legally, of course!)? Well, just have a look on eBay to see the prices that Parallel or 90 Degrees albums are selling for. If nothing else, it's a shrewd investment!
Alison Henderson's Review
A new Tangent album is always like opening a selection of Christmas or birthday gifts as everything inside each one of them offers something different and exciting but delivers a special meaning and significant to the receiver.
Receiving is the operative word as in this, the band’s sixth album the overarching theme of communication and the continuing new channels being developed to deliver the flow of continuous flow of information and signals is both pertinent and completely on-message. There is also an element within of making deeper connections with life through them and because of them.
And the collective, connective approach Andy Tillison, Tangent main man applies to the albums means that each one of them showcases specific artistes, some known or some in the ascendency. Every musical sorcerer has his apprentice and in this case, Tillison has found a young axe magician in Luke Machin, evidence indeed that the future of prog is in very safe hands.
From the initial beeping of a fax machine, The Wiki Man, the longest track at 20:14 opens up with flurries of guitar morphing into driving keyboards, paring back into gentle piano and plaintive bass and then flies high with synthesiser against a driving beat. It tells a story of how we now define ourselves by the information we now receive and disseminate. Within it is a passage from pianist/synth player Andrew Roussak on Competition Watershed, his reward for winning a special competition to appear on this album: again proof of Tillison’s mentoring attitude to talented new players. And very good it is too.
The Mind’s Eye is built on a choppy jazzy organ motif which becomes a spacey meditation returning back to a searing synth and guitar exposition, ebbing and flowing then taking off in another direction on Shoot Them Down to a lyrical soundspace with Jonathan Barrett leading the vocal harmonics and finishing with a stunningly mature guitar outpouring from Machin.
The bubbling undercurrent of organ and synths introduces Tech Support Guy, a wonderful, jazzy tongue in cheek tribute to the guy who always gets the blame for IT system failures during the week who escapes his troubled day job by camping in the woods at weekends “where he’s billions of light years from their blame.”
The sounds of waves and ghostly sonics lead into the finale Titanic Calls Carpathia, the definitive story of comm according to the Tangent starting with the first ever radio SOS call ever made in April 1912 in this case from ship to ship. This they compare with another groundbreaking first nearly 60 years later when Apollo 13 and its occupants were rescued from an accident 200,000 miles away by way of a simple two way radio. Again it is a driving rhythm which pushes the piece along punctuated by Machin’s sonorous guitar. Time and time again, Tillison cuts loose in a synth frenzy to illustrate the unfolding story taking in the Facebook phenomenon right up to the use of social media to bring about the Arab Spring.
What is so refreshing about this album is the way it does shift along, going off at different tangents throughout with no song hanging around too long in one groove or outstaying its welcome before heading off on a completely different dynamic. The Tangent hallmark is still all in here, the jazzy signatures of guitar, keyboards, Barrett’s beefy bass, but all within a refreshingly new and exciting world view.
It all comes beautifully gift-wrapped in another thought-provokingly brilliant Ed Unitsky cover, again evoking the COMM theme through a visual journey of wonderment and confusion.
The Tangent are appearing this weekend at the Summer’s End Festival and if this album is anything to go by, theirs is going to be one of the performances of the weekend.
Brendan Bowen's Review
Much has been said about The Tangent in this forum covering each successive album as they come. After going back and rereading the older reviews it became apparent that it would be difficult to add to that in a meaningful way, maybe even a trifle repetitive since much of what has been said is still relevant to this newest release. With that I will make this case for COMM in a more personal way than I otherwise would have.
I am a big fan of all Andy Tillison’s work. He is the quintessential prog nerd who, against all criticisms, struggles, and line-up changes, still churns out quality prog because he knows he can – whether the voting public knows it or not.
One characterization of this point is Tillison’s voice. Much like the way bad acting is crucial to the enduring cult status and success of old science fiction, the vocal shortcomings found in COMM are just as bad and just as crucial. Contrarily the uninitiated will most certainly cringe at first listen – which means it will likely be their last. What I hear is a typically off key blat when Andy sings in the up front and in-your-face passages, but when he pulls back and lays it down delicately like in Shoot Them Down and parts of Titanic Calls Carpathia he comes off as a proper vocalist.
Luckily, I am already initiated and this latest release has a certain vintage ELP flair with a soulful bent that is somewhat reminiscent of the more active side of The Moody Blues in an odd way (no, seriously!). What I hear overall, however, is not the past. The Tangent is commonly compared to vintage prog bands and the Spartan mix in the recording is reminiscent of that era, but when you include the amazing saxophone work, the clever song writing, the unexpected transitions, I hear something new and fresh deserving of attention in its own right, not as a throwback to a previous era.
COMM is an album about the realities of instant communication. Andy does an excellent job of availing the audience of the dichotomy of modern society and the division of technology while adroitly manifesting the ironies of each end of the “Comm” spectrum. When you listen you must pay attention to the lyrics. The sardonically styled humour is unmatched in its presentation – perhaps even The Tangent’s best effort to date. Andy certainly has a way of injecting British styled sarcasm into a prog rock record!
A criticism I have from past albums: The Tangent and The Flower Kings have had a tendency to take a while to get into the “meat” of the music and allowing intros to meander a bit much – even using longwinded lyric segments to dawdle while we wait for the song to make its case. I have noticed this less recently for The Tangent and I cannot ascribe this complaint to COMM at all. Like bookends, Wiki Man and Titanic Calls Carpathia run at 20 and 16 minutes respectively and none of these songs waste any time giving pure entertainment value. As time has passed, the music of The Tangent had separated itself from The Flower Kings more and more.
The album artwork is bizarre and beautiful – just like the music. This album stands tall among other Tangent work, maybe bested only by Down And Out In Paris And London for me. This has been a great year for new releases and this one fits right in.
*Read Dave Baird's in depth interview with Andy Tillison - HERE!