Album Reviews

Issue 2022-062

Duo Review

The Tangent — Songs From The Hard Shoulder

The Tangent - Songs From The Hard Shoulder
The Changes (17:06), The GPS Vultures (17:02), The Lady Tied to the Lamp Post (20:53), Wasted Soul (4:40); bonus track: In the Dead of Night / Tangential Aura / Reprise (16:12)
Bryan Morey

In their twentieth year as a band, The Tangent are back with their latest amalgamation of musical influences in Songs From The Hard Shoulder. Somewhat appropriately-named, The Tangent are always a fun band for me to listen to. Their blend of musical styles ranges from prog (well, duh) to jazz and jazz fusion, hard rock, and even pop, funk, soul and (gasp!) disco. There's even some classical elements on this record. Andy Tillison's lyrics and keyboards set the band apart, and the rest of the group seem to play together better and better with each passing record.

In some ways this record is a continuation from 2020's Auto Reconnaissance, with a strong call to introspection and reflection. The Changes reflects on the changes we've all undergone the last couple years. It looks at the effects of long lockdowns and how we react to the world we now find ourselves in.

Andy Tillison's lyrics bring in some stories from the band, which help bring some realism to the point that he's trying to get across. These ideas aren't just abstract.

I look at Steve and Jonas by the van on one morning in July
Setting off into the great unknown
We'd do a gig and not get paid in a backwater German town
And somehow fall asleep with the thought of a job well done
I mean... God... it was so much fun!

Up and down the street for hours... we can't find the hotel
Luke says "if they put up a sign, they'd probably do well"
Five friends who just can't meet any more
Expanded to millions... behind every door there's a story. The Changes (Andy Tillison)

He ultimately calls the listener not to settle for merely going back to the way things were, but instead to pursue something better. An honourable call, but sadly one that will go ignored. Any changes we see, I fear, will be for the worse.

Misrepresentation and bias and hate
Amid social isolation... who could carry that weight?
We've spent our lives living in room 101
Let's not go back there this time... let's try to make a change
Let's make something happen here! The Changes (Andy Tillison)

The GPS Vultures is a 17-minute instrumental, intra-genre journey. There's jazz, hard rock, and even classical guitar. This isn't a long song for the sake of being long. This is a band doing what they love; jamming. The variety of music keeps it sounding fresh throughout. It has quieter moments that sound like they could have had Andy singing lyrics over the music.

It has distinctive Tangent movements, and drops in the music. It has Luke Machin's exquisite guitar work, which I think has been one of many elements that has helped distinguish The Tangent from other prog bands of this era. Theo Travis' saxophone and flute work accentuates the jazzy feel. The song really gives everyone in the band the chance to shine. Jonas Reingold's bass on this song (and the entire album) is stellar. It sounds and feels great in the mix. I actually had to turn my sub-woofer down a bit, to keep from annoying the neighbours.

Interestingly, Andy Tillison told a friend of mine in an interview for Progarchy that this track shares a musical connection with the band's song, GPS Culture, from 2006's A Place In The Queue. He said that he went back to the original musical idea for that song, and started with that, but then went in a completely different direction. He chose the name GPS Vultures simply because it rhymed with "Culture." Ha.

GPS Vultures flows nicely into the most haunting track on the record, the 20-minute The Lady Tied To The Lamp Post. Like so many of Andy's songs, the lyrics are based on a real story. He came across a homeless woman tying herself to a lamp post, so that she wouldn't fall over while she was asleep. Andy didn't have any money to give her, but he gave her a cigarette and went on his way, reflecting deeply on that interaction on his bus trip home.

All of this is spelled out in the lyrics, and the moral of the story gets at the problem of isolation, loneliness, people slipping through the cracks, and local governments making life hard on the homeless. It's a song that makes you think. There's a lot of compassion in the lyrics. Andy also brings the story right to your doorstep by pointing out that most of us aren't all that far from being on the streets ourselves. When work decides that we aren't needed anymore, when the money runs out in the bank accounts, when the landlord kicks us out, when the bank forecloses, and there you are, tied to your very own lamp post.

And out on the outskirts, suburbs twinkle in the night
The deep thrum of The Internet, everywhere, but out of sight
We wave our tear-stained emojis when poverty's on our thread
Then lock the house, switch off the lights
And thank God for our bed

And out on horizons we don't see
A switch gets flicked... a flag comes up
A spreadsheet puts us on the streets

Living lives as avatars, accounts that bear our names
Are called up from The Aether, show our positions in The Game
And blue lights and breakdown trucks, they only come if you've got 'the score'
Without them, we'd be sleeping on the floor
And we'll have nothing in the World The Lady Tied To The Lamp Post (Andy Tillison)

Musically it starts off very quiet, and like I mentioned, it flows from the instrumental track with a quiet guitar-line over a spacey keyboard. The song has a mix of Andy's styles of singing, including both his regular singing, his talk-singing, and his impassioned shout-singing. He also has a short bit of narration at the very end. Some reviews of the band's past albums have taken issue with some ways he sings, but I appreciate the blend of singing styles he uses to convey emotion. He hits a surprisingly high note on the song, which demonstrates how his voice has improved in recent years (he told me in an interview in 2020 that he had stopped smoking).

The song has some long instrumental passages, some of which some might say are a tad superfluous. I like the passages as they are, because The Tangent jam really well together. They incorporate some heavier elements into an instrumental part in the beginning of the final third, and as they near the end they incorporate a bit of experimentation, highlighted by Theo's saxophone.

The Tangent: Andy Tillison. Promo photo

The surprise of the album is Wasted Soul, a funky soul-rock track that is heavily influenced by Earth, Wind & Fire, which apparently is a strong influence on Andy, as he told my friend in the aforementioned interview. The song works really well, even if it has a different vibe from the rest of the album. Musically it is very upbeat, which befits the shortest song on the record. It would be a great track for radio.

Here Andy's lyrics deal with having to go through life while feeling like everything you do is meaningless, specifically in the context of living in lockdown. But we keep going as we look forward to a brighter future. It's a happy note on which to end the record. While I may not listen to the type of music tat this is obviously emulating, I appreciate Andy and the band's take on it.

Is Songs From The Hard Shoulder going to win The Tangent any new fans? I highly doubt it, but this was the album the band wanted to make, at Andy's own admission. It's an album for the already-initiated. There are other albums from the band that would be better to start off with. For me, it was primarily A Spark In The Aether back in 2015, although I dabbled in some of their other music before that. Sure that record had its longer songs, but it also had some shorter tracks.

Songs From The Hard Shoulder has four songs, three of which are over 17 minutes, and one song under 5 minutes. Even the bonus track, a cover of UK's In The Dead of Night with some Tangential jamming from the band, is over 16 minutes. If you're already a fan, then this record will be easy to get into. If they're new to you, maybe check out Le Sacre du Travail, A Spark in the Aether, or even their debut, The Music That Died Alone, and then give Songs From the Hard Shoulder a listen. I think the context will help you understand and appreciate this record a lot more.

Héctor Gómez

Those who have read my Tangent reviews in recent years will know that I haven't been particularly, let's say "enthusiastic", with their modern output. It's been a while since I was genuinely impressed by any of their releases; as I firmly believe one has to be demanding with great artists.

Andy Tillison is one such person, and in my view the problem (for lack of a better word) could be that his band set the bar too high for themselves with their first four releases. After those, for every inspired Le Sacre du Travail, you get a not-so-great Slow Rust or Auto Reconnaissance.

The good news is that Songs From The Hard Shoulder is at least as good as Proxy and probably the most fun I've had with a The Tangent record in years; even though I still feel the epics tend to go on for a bit too long for their own good. Also, some more variety and colour in the vocal department wouldn't hurt. Andy used to share singing duties with the likes of Roine Stolt, Jakko Jakszyk and David Longdon, and the depth and dynamics they brought to the table certainly benefited the music.

Funnily enough, one of this album's highlights is the instrumental behemoth The GPS Vultures. It is a spiritual sequel of sorts to A Place In The Queue's GPS Culture, and a very entertaining 17 minutes of ever-shifting moods. It perfects the Doctor Livingstone or The Melting Andalusian Skies formula while showcasing Luke Machin's exquisite six-string delights on the way.

Elsewhere, the two remaining epics cover quite a lot of ground over nearly 38 minutes. The Changes displays the more playful side of things, thanks to its instantly hummable main theme and some seriously tasty use of vintage keyboards. The Lady Tied To The Lamp Post proudly continues The Tangent's healthy tradition of addressing social issues through Tillison's sharp but empathetic wit.

There's been (some really absurd) controversy surrounding this particular song, and whether it is ethical or even morally acceptable to "use" a sensitive subject such as homelessness as a springboard for pop / rock frivolity. I honestly don't see anything wrong with it; quite the opposite in fact, as I believe it's always good news that rock bands (and any popular artist for that matter) pay attention to the "real" world and channel their thoughts and interests through it. As for the song itself, it might remind you of In Earnest, although not as instantly memorable as that 2005 classic. Still, there are plenty of interesting instrumental passages to be savoured in its generous runtime. Again the main theme is memorable in its simple beauty; shame that it outstays its welcome by three to four minutes.

Two more The Tangent traditions await the listener before bringing the curtain down. Firstly, and perhaps to balance the uber-progginess of it all, there's Wasted Soul, a punchy, funky four-minute rocker à la Life On Hold or Tower Of Babel. Then, for those who get the digipak edition, we have a nice bonus in the shape of UK's In The Dead Of Night, which somehow manages to remain faithful to the original piece but at the same time adds some Tangentisms, reaching a quite satisfying 16 minutes of prog bliss.

So, to (mis)quote the band, this is a few steps down the right road. When we get a new The Tangent masterpiece might now be only a matter of time; and I, for one, am glad I just said that.

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