The Tangent — Pyramids, Stars And Other Stories
One of The Tangent's most remarkable traits is the band's (or perhaps Andy Tillison's) ability to remain very much relevant in the present, while acknowledging the glorious past. That is something they do with gusto with this new double CD / triple-vinyl live album. Having turned out a prolific twelve-album repertoire in 20 years, there's no denying they are a generous band indeed.
Actually, this is both a live album and a compilation, as it brings together several previously released bootlegs and fan releases, recorded with multiple line-ups and at assorted venues across Germany, the UK and the USA. No fewer than seven studio albums are represented, performed by no fewer than nine musicians, including three different drummers. It's a pity the groovy Jaime Salazar doesn't make an appearance this time, but we do have plenty of 12 to 20 minute epics taking up most of the hour-and-a-half run-time. In other words, this is a prog feast.
Given the diversity of the music included here, it is fair to say that performances range from the raw and intimate (see A Sale Of Two Souls), to the vibrant and energetic (The Canterbury Sequence), or the just plain fun and catchy (A Spark In The Aether). There are some pretty faithful renditions of some of the band's classic pieces, such as In Darkest Dreams or an excellent version of The Winning Game, but surprisingly it is the deeper cuts which reveal themselves as the highlights.
A case in point is a scorching Doctor Livingstone (I Presume), a twelve-minute instrumental which greatly benefits from the live setting and truly comes alive in this context. Luke Machin really shines on this piece. Also, the spectacular Titanic Calls Carpathia, a Comm (2011) epic which was "fine" in its original form but manages to reach new heights thanks to the intense and dramatic treatment it gets here. It is when the band deviates from the studio versions and explores uncharted waters that Pyramids, Stars And Other Stories proves its worth.
Not to be fussy, but I would have loved to see included here live renditions of things like Four Egos One War, The Adulthood Lie or any other previously unreleased material, and I cannot wait to hear what The Tangent do with their newer material on the stage. In any case this is a very good companion to that good old Going Off On One released back in 2007 and a fairly thorough overview of this venerable band's illustrious career.
Under review today, we see a very thorough exposé of this band during the period 2004 to 2017 playing in a live environment that includes concerts in Germany, the UK and the USA. All concerts were previously released as unofficial bootlegs but thanks to the support of their label, Insideout Music, these three concerts now see the light of day as a trilogy of official live albums. All have been neatly packaged under the one umbrella.
The excellent quality of the recordings would suggest that someone had access to the mixing desk, as there are no tell-tale signs of someone using a cheap Radio Shack microphone, stuffed under a woollen jacket to avoid the concert mafia, but then filtered through a pile of blotting paper to eliminate any sonic discrepancies. For this reason I find it odd that the band were apparently unaware that a section of the concert in the UK was recorded without their prior knowledge. From my own experience playing in a live environment, one could never hope to achieve the quality that is evident here, unless connected directly to the desk. Perhaps technology has improved so much since I played, that such audio limitations are now a thing of the past?
While I have, for the most part, enjoyed quite a few albums by The Tangent, my overall enjoyment of their music has sadly been somewhat tarnished as I fail to understand why a band that is so full of exceptionally gifted musicians, still allow Tillison to keep hold of the microphone. There can be no denying he is a brilliant keyboard player and composer in general but there can be no escaping the fact that with many of their songs, especially when played live, he simply fails to hold a note well. I find it annoyingly distracting when a favourite piece of music is marred when the vocal sections fall flat. I am sure I am not in the minority here as it does not take long to realise so many other fans have discovered the same problem and said so in their own on-line reviews.
Considering there are so many excellent singers who would jump at the chance to play with such a brilliant line-up, one wonders why the band have not accepted that a fresh set of pipes might be enough to really create a supergroup to rival the likes of Transatlantic, Flying Colors or The Flower Kings. I guess it all revolves around Andy Tillison being the main player (composer), so he gets to call the shots with who plays / sings each particular song. Additionally, given that engaging a new dedicated singer adds more expense to the payroll, the current option just might be the only one that is sustainable. Such a pity!
Ignoring my caveat about the vocals in some sections of this epic release, it is quite apparent that the quality of song-smithing and general musicianship are downright brilliant. Andy sure has plenty of keyboard skills which are demonstrated throughout. Rather than give a drive-by interpretation of every song, I'll just settle for a half dozen or so.
A Crisis In Midlife is a decent song with excellent interplay between keys and guitars but let down by the vocals. A Sale of Two Souls features a nice acoustic backdrop, delicate keys and plaintive vocals that hit the mark quite well. A Spark In The Ether features a strong and likeable synth run and is one of the better tracks on offer.
Doctor Livingstone (I Presume) begins with a great synth run, accompanied by fluid and convincing guitar, lots of cymbal work from the drummer and traverses a lot of territory, moving from quiet passages to more upbeat sections. Jazzy piano interludes also help to carry the song, along with some brooding keyboard and Mellotron sounds in parts. Long guitar solos predominate, underpinned by some solid bass work and drumming, making this one of the more diverse songs on the album. It does stray off course a little and could be shorter, but overall, it does the job.
In Darkest Dreams follows a similar path but Roine Stolt's unmistakable voice keeps the vocal department under control quite well. It follows a more Flower Kings style of song, which is to be expected but was not my favourite. While the punchy bass, guitars and keys are a highlight throughout, when Andy takes over the vocal duties, the song gets bogged down and just ambles along for far too long for my money.
The Canterbury Sequence has a jazzy, upbeat tone underpinning the song and is quite the bouncy piece of work the album needs to keep it from getting too bogged down. Again, excellent bass work along with some keyboard wizardry that had me thinking that Keith Emerson was on board. This is followed by some tasty piano, synthesizer and the odd guitar excursion.
When you boil it all down, this is a long journey that does cover a lot of ground, both physically and musically. Three live shows all rolled into one is probably a bit ambitious to wade through in one sitting, so breaking it up into two or three sessions while trying to evaluate everything that was included, enabled me to get through this offering in a more realistic manner.
It features some stunning keyboard wizardry from Andy, excellent drumming, bass and guitar throughout, with the added benefit of some very creative songwriting. The other musicians who have contributed their respective pieces also deserve a mention as they are as formidable a bunch of seasoned players that you could possibly assemble. Great work by all on board! Had the vocals been a bit more convincing and on key, I would have given this a well deserved 9 but for the reasons given above, the best I can do is a 7.
This album is available as a double CD or a triple vinyl plus 2CD edition, plus of course the usual digital options. For a description of which songs are from which show, read the album page on the Tangent website.