Round Table Review
The Tangent — Auto Reconnaissance
Ahhh... welcome back, Andy Tillison.
The Tangent's previous album, Proxy was only two years ago and the one before that, The Slow Rust Of Forgotten Machinery was three years ago, but I found creativity lacking in both of those. I absolutely loved 2015's A Spark In The Aether, though. On that album, Tillison's trek through America and corresponding cultural critique was precise in a satirically-profound way. In contrast, The Slow Rust Of Forgotten Machinery and Proxy were overtly political and partisan. Regardless of viewpoints, I've always found lyrics that focus on contemporary politics to be fleeting, boring, and just plain dull.
With Auto Reconnaissance it seems as if Tillison himself has grown weary of the mundane, for he has returned to cultural critique, even criticising the political divisions of the day. With that, I welcome this album as a true return to form. I much preferred the critiques and commentaries found in A Spark In The Aether and Le Sacre Du Travail. Both albums, as well as the band's earlier output, examined aspects of what it means to be human, and I think this album returns to that approach.
As usual, Tillison's lyrics are dense, yet profound. From pontificating about the state of things, to plain, old-fashioned storytelling in Jinxed In Jersey, Auto Reconnaissance has it all. The creativity is fantastic. At one point he carries on a conversation between himself and a New Jersey police officer, which I'm pretty sure he voices. It's a long song, and Tillison takes us on an interesting journey through New York in search of the Statue of Liberty. Lyrically it has moments that remind me of King Crimson's Thela Hun Ginjeet, although without the tension or the musical nods. At just three seconds shy of 16 minutes, the song has a lot of time to travel through various musical landscapes. It goes from smooth jazz, to metal and back to a heavier jazz, seemingly mimicking the emotions of traveling through New York and New Jersey.
The third track, Under Your Spell, has a bit of an R&B vibe, but it remains strongly proggy. The saxophone solo keeps things grounded, and the song just shows this band's versatility; especially Tillison's versatility as a writer.
being present, being human
a firm handshake, a pat on the back
banished to the pages
of twentieth-century etiquette now The Tower Of Babel
The Tower Of Babel finds Tillison at his absolute best lyrically. This song analyses how twenty-first century humanity has lost the ability to communicate. In the book of Genesis in the bible, mankind decides to attempt to build a tower to heaven to make a name for themselves. God responds by confusing their languages and scattering them over the face of the earth. Tillison argues that something similar has happened today with modern technology. People no longer know how to communicate in person. Our emails and text-based interactions are often cold and calculated, removing our humanity from everyday life: "No one understands a thing you say anymore." The curmudgeon in me loves the conclusion he comes to:
send a message to the tower of Babel
tell 'em where to stick it, and pull out the cable
Lie Back And Think Of England is a masterful epic of progressive rock. Over 28 minutes long, the band takes us on a lyrical and musical journey. The foundational theme finds Tillison commenting that England isn't what you see on the nightly news or hear in the halls of parliament. The lyrics: "I feel I'm wading through concrete / And heaven knows it's getting tight" and "Find some nice sand I can bury my head in / while the argument is heading my way", display his exasperation with the constant barrage of political rantings. As Tillison shouts in the song, England is her hills, her dales, and her people.
When I visited England for a month five years ago, I didn't pay attention to her politics. I met her wonderful people, and I enjoyed her stunning landscapes and architecture. I embraced England for her true beauty. As an American, I think Tillison's commentary could easily apply to my homeland. The America I love is so much better than the extreme violence blowing up in the inner cities and the constant political bickering. America and England are still out there; we just need to find and preserve them.
I can't say it much better than Andy does: "So forgive and forget / Let's put this behind us..." (Just a quick comment on this lyrical passage; the vocals could be turned up a bit. It gets drowned-out by the music, and I think it is probably the most important lyrical moment on the album. I couldn't make out the next few lines.)
This track also has some fantastic instrumental passages. Jonas Reingold's bass solo, backed by what sounds like bongo drums from drummer Steve Roberts in the final quarter of the song, came as a bit of a surprise, albeit a pleasant one. Luke Machin's guitar part that leads up to Tillison's final call to forgive and forget, demonstrates how beautifully this band works together. The music wonderfully frames the lyrical passages, and the instrumental sections expand and grow to lush heights.
I think the album probably should have ended with this track. The Midas Touch is a good song, but it should have come before Lie Back And Think Of England, as the album builds to an emotional high by the end of that song. With that said, the all-instrumental bonus track, Proxima, makes a fine end to the album by allowing the listener to decompress, through its rather psychedelic passages.
Overall Auto Reconnaissance sounds particularly lush in its production. This took a listen with headphones to really draw out, but the depth and intricacies in the music shine on every level. The keyboards give it a nostalgic feel, while the drums, guitar, and saxophone have a strong jazz sound, especially on Jinxed In Jersey. Some albums can be wearying to listen to with headphones, but I haven't found that to be the case here.
After many listens I find Auto Reconnaissance to be far more compelling than the last two Tangent albums. It's almost as if Tillison has just grown tired of the bickering and wants to find a way to focus on what really matters.
Musically the album is as good as everything we've come to expect from The Tangent. The band aren't attempting to hide their progressive rock influences, but with that said, I don't really think the album sounds like anyone else other than The Tangent. They've been around long enough to firmly establish their own sound in the genre.
I can't recommend this album highly enough. I think the track order could be adjusted a bit, but it is a fantastic record. Long-time fans of the band won't be disappointed. The album far exceeds the official single (although the single is good). If you're like me and didn't like the last two albums, give this one a listen (or two) before you make a final judgment. I'm glad I did, since this will surely find its way onto my best albums of the year list.
I beg you in earnest for nothing more...
nothing more... nothing more Lie Back And Think Of England
For yours truly, the first four Tangent albums are magnificent modern (in time) and retro (in style) classics. I come back to them on a fairly regular basis and always have a blast with the vibrant performances and witty lyrics. But I also believe something "broke" after 2008's Not As Good As The Book, and even though I've still found plenty to enjoy on subsequent releases, it's been a case of diminishing returns.
I very much admire and respect Andy Tillison, both as an activist and an artist, but now this decline has been a long-time coming and I have to come to terms with the notion that Auto Reconnaissance is the first real disappointment in the band's illustrious and prolific career.
My concerns about their post-2008 output can be summarised in two main concepts, these being a certain lack of punch and warmth on the production side of things (why does Luke Machin's guitar always sound so dry?), as well as the distressing feeling that 20 minute epics have to appear on every album for the sake of "prog purity".
I'm positive I will be in the minority here, but for me their last truly brilliant epic was Four Egos One War and the last I could (mostly) enjoy was Where Are They Now?. After these, my experience with the Tangent's long-form compositions has been a rather love/hate affair. I've often found them unfocused, patchy and brilliant only in occasional bursts. After symptoms of weariness became evident (to me) on pieces like The Wiki Man or The Celluloid Road, the 22 minutes of Slow Rust felt like a slog. Hey, I'm as big a sucker for epics as any fellow progger, but the length has to be justified and sustained by a wide variety of ideas and some kind of structure in which to present them.
So what's the problem then? Well, Jinxed In Jersey and Lie Back And Think Of England are together 44 minutes in length. But only about half of that runtime lives up to a high standard. The former follows in the jazzy, Canterbury-infused tradition of Lost In London or The Canterbury Sequence but it's twice their length and it just goes on forever, marred by an excess of voice-overs. As for the latter, its 28 minutes are a frustrating experience, as if every flashy keyboard run or funky passage had to be constantly sabotaged to break the flow and make this piece sound like an overlong and stitched together series of unrelated pieces, which eventually go nowhere.
The album's saving graces are the shorter pieces, and in this case they are mostly excellent. Although the ballad Under Your Spell might sound a bit dated in its arrangements, there's no denying Life On Hold, The Tower Of Babel and The Midas Touch are all punchy and infectious rock numbers, perfectly channeling the breezy side of the band. Also, the 12-minute bonus track Proxima pretty much strikes a perfect balance between ambient electronica, jazz rock and even lounge music, showing a very interesting facet of the band which is worth exploring in future releases.
I do feel that it is time for The Tangent to stir things up and be brave, as their tried-and-tested formula might be wearing out. Such an unfocused release as this doesn't do full justice to their legacy and reputation. Did I say I don't like Ed Unitsky's artwork very much (always more miss than hit if you ask me)?
I'd have loved to write a stellar review, but it is precisely because of my love and appreciation of (almost) all things Tangent and Tillison that I feel my duty is to be demanding and expect nothing but the best from such illustrious names.
It was Oscar Wilde who said: "Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes". That could be said to apply most-aptly to another of singer/songwriter Andy Tillison's observational 'Lost' pieces on this latest release, Auto Reconnaissance.
This time he's Jinxed In Jersey. These uniquely witty and yet everyman experiences reflect on journeys outside of our comfort zone. On this occasion, the goal was to see the Statue of Liberty. Of all the series so far, it has perhaps the most unsettling feel, as he blindly decides to take a stroll to capture the spirit of the city in which the statue exists. There is a playful tone, with a humorous narration, backed with familiar, soft Canterbury phrasing which juxtaposes the unseen but ever present danger: "Everyone's got guns".
Like something from a Terry Gilliam animation, if you could remove the top of Tillison's head and have a peek inside, you would see that all the elements in this song play to his fascinations with American culture, and continue with the themes started on The Celluloid Road from 2015's A Spark In The Aether.
It's the centrepiece of the album which is closer to 'home' and a clever pun on the phrase, Lie Back And Think Of England. A sprawling, almost 30-minute prog epic, which plays to an overarching theme of the breakdown in human communication. A partial follow up to the political themes set on 2017's A Few Steps Down The Wrong Road, the frustrations are still present, but sounding decidedly weary: "I feel like I'm wading through concrete". Tired of the bickering noise and chatter, he just needs to: "find some nice sand to bury my head in".
It is musically dense, shifting its mood and styling with the expertise you can depend on from this band. The synergy between Tillison's keys, Theo Travis's sax and flute, and the fluid fretboard work from guitarist Luke Machin are like nothing else. Underpinned by the driving groove from bassist Jonas Reingold and drummer Steve Roberts, the Tangent have never sounded so sharp.
At the heart of the piece, Tillison puts perspective on everything with a view of the beauty of the landscape, making all the human changes seem small and transient. "It's the hills and the dales that make the rules" barks Tillison with passionate defiance. If John Constable was painting today he would have taken this album as romantic inspiration for his work, depicting the true reflection of society in the railway viaducts and hubs of ordinary life.
Long-time fans are rewarded in the closing section with a revisit to In Earnest, from A Place In The Queue, and it's here that you cannot help but marvel at the skilful, interlocking pieces which span the band's career and somehow indicate that this was all planned. If this was a TV series, you would be starting again at the beginning, on a hunt for the breadcrumbs.
Elsewhere the phenomenon of Technocracy in industrial societies is examined within the bouncy, Tower Of Babel. Tillison has references the biblical tower and the parallels of the story from the book of Genesis with the way society is left in confusion and communication failure, in the wake of a failed political project. The loss of identity and social justice as a consequence of the failure is keenly examined here.
The tonic to everything on Auto Reconnaissance and the jewel of the album is a love song. The beautiful Under Your Spell provides the soothing antidote with a perfect, fragile vocal from Tillison, matched with some of Machin's finest moments on the album; a luxuriously clean solo with hints of Flamenco styling. The closing third, nods subtly towards 10cc's multi-tracked vocal backdrop with an almost effortless, silky Travis sax solo, which is both nimble and restrained and a joy to listen to. It serves as a reminder that The Tangent come at you from all directions and genres, and they make it look easy.
All the elements of this band are in place and at the top of their game. It's a superb ride from start to finish. A compelling, sublime lesson in scope and progression and yet it could also be the most 'Tangent' thing the band have ever crafted.
On my first listen to The Tangent's new album, I found its mix of song-focussed, funky, soul-pop, jazz, Tamla Motown tracks, and wonderfully excessive prog rock, a bit bewildering. With repeated plays it began to fall into place and its individual and collective beauties and no-concession bloody-mindedness more than won me over.
Auto Reconnaissance takes elements of the pop-soul-disco side of The Tangent, as found on A Spark In The Aether, and the stronger prog of Le Sacre Du Travail, chopping them up and recombining them to great effect.
The Tangent are enjoying their most settled line-up since they formed, and it lends this album a band-feel where the players interact more intuitively. The music on Auto Reconnaissance has every player adding to the overall groove. A groove that has the feel of a band moving forward, without abandoning the roots of what they do best.
Lyric-wise, Andy Tillison seems to be less acerbically cynical than on some of the band's previous releases (not that I have heard them all). Instead he seems to be searching for hope and warmth in these dark times. Although the hard-headed realism does make the occasional reappearance (see The Tower Of Babel and Lie Back And Think Of England). For anyone not familiar with Andy Tillison's vocals, his characterful, Yorkshire-accented, talk-singing style reminds me of a less-operatic Peter Hammill; and Hammill and Tillison vie with each other for the title of England's best lyricist.
After a short intro, The Tangent begin with what I call the Abba gambit. Life On Hold starts with its chorus laden with Tillison's popping Hammond organ and Luke Machin's funky guitar licks. It's almost a form of prog to which you can dance. Andy Tillison has a knack of arranging a soul-funk melody into a prog workout in the same way that Frost's Jem Godfrey has with a pop melody. Life On Hold is an opener of hidden muscle.
Second on Auto Reconnaissance is first of the two long tracks, Jinxed In Jersey. This is one of Tillison's trademark, half-spoken, anecdotal story songs. It leavens its political points about the USA having turned its back on liberty, with sardonic humour and some dated references (TJ Hooker anyone?). The music ranges from jazzy piano motifs, growling Hammond, Steve Robert's skittering drums and Jonas Reingold's bouncy bass, giving the song's journey a momentum as restless as its storytelling, as it goes from fusion, though heavy prog, to flashes of EDM and fabulous guitar. I thought on repeat plays that this one might get a bit wearing but the intricacies of the music let the storytelling breathe and keep it fresh.
Next is possibly Andy Tillison's best-ever vocal performance. He shows his skills as a balladeer on Under Your Spell. A sweet, but not saccharine, love song to which Machin brings a soulful guitar which is then surpassed by Theo Travis' sax solo. This is followed by the Steely Dan-with-a-harder-funk-edge of The Tower Of Babel, with punchy horn stabs and lively bass. Its acerbic dissection of the digital tsunami of mis-information could have sat easily amongst the themes of 2011's Comm.
You have to settle yourself in for the prog centrepiece of Auto Reconnaissance. At nearly 30 minutes Lie Back And Think Of England is an epic state-of-thenation address that mixes a hard-headed realism (often mistaken for cynicism) with a romanticism about the English landscape that reminds me of the lyrical preoccupations of Big Big Train. It skewers post-truth Brexit politics, contrasting it with what England means to someone who loves its landscape. A celebration of inclusivity, not exclusivity.
The music of this epic has so many sections that I lost count around the ten or eleven mark. It starts quietly with piano and fretless bass in an ambient mode, before moving into the song-based section that recurs as it progresses. Tempos and dynamics change and there is a terrific flute solo. I'm not going to go through the multitude of highlights on offer here and I think it would take away from the well-structured whole that is Lie Back And Think Of England. It is another great epic from The Tangent.
The last official track is The Midas Touch, which provides for a hopeful conclusion to the album, with its call for the sun to return and push away winter's darkness. The music has the funk-disco feel that Tillison has made no secret of his love for. I buy right into the persuasive melodies and arrangements on the shorter songs here. The longer tracks stand well on their own.
There is a bonus track available for early purchasers and it is well worth having. Proxima is a smart instrumental that starts in ambient mode but quickly builds in a terrific mix of a fusion-style, fleet-fingered fretless bass, underpinning pulsing, sequenced synths as the melody and rhythm build. I personally would like to hear The Tangent trying more of this post-rock-fusion-meets-Berlin-School-electronic-prog-rock.
The Tangent's Auto Reconnaissance expertly blends the shorter songs with the expansive ones, and they sit together well, with all the music being cut from the same cloth. Everything here, from Ed Untisky's cover art to dodgy but entertaining American accents, and all points of superb musicianship in between, are beautifully and passionately crafted. Don't miss out on this.
We are The Tangent. Resistance is almost certainly futile.