by Prog Nick
No-one can accuse The Tangent of being predictable. On the contrary, Andy Tillison’s band of talented Proggers seem to attract and maintain their fan-base by focusing on the unexpected and the unpredictable, always coupled with magnificent musicianship. A prolific composer, Tillison’s recent creations have rung true by telling tales of revelation and truth, featuring increasingly relevant commentary (often socio-political) and very vivid story-telling. If ever that horrible cliché ‘this is my truth’ were to be used by a musician as a genuine epithet to describe his music, Tillison could validly make that claim.
While The Tangent’s eleventh studio album, ‘Auto Reconnaissance’ is not an overt departure from 2018’s critically-applauded ‘Proxy’, it nonetheless does present a stylistic variation. It is more experimental, more analytical, more ironic and certainly more reliant on its very forthright lyrics. In fact, I would go so far as to maintain that parts of the album are more poetry than Prog. But not all of the album is serious commentary – some of it exposes Tillison’s deep and ironic sense of humor, and all of it certainly rings true. ‘Auto Reconnaissance’ presumably refers to a state of self-reflection or introspection, and you should expect to do lots of that while listening to this album. Tillison ceaselessly commandeers the listener with compositional and lyrical surprises, but of course, one thing remains constant – the instrumental brilliance of the band’s line-up.
Tillison keeps august company. The Tangent has for some time now featured some of Prog’s very finest performers: master bassist Jonas Reingold (Karmakanic/Steve Hackett), virtuoso guitarist Luke Machin (Maschine, Francis Dunnery’s It Bites) and king of Prog saxophonists Theo Travis (Steven Wilson/Soft Machine), are ably backed up by Steve Roberts (ex-Magenta), now firmly ensconced as the band’s drummer. With Tillison on keys and lead vocals, any band would be hard-pressed to present a better line-up. It is also worth noting that this is the first time that the Tangent’s line-up has remained constant for two consecutive albums.
‘Auto Reconnaissance,’ is a little like an odd-shaped Christmas hamper filled with presents from a slightly weird, but very socially aware, family member. You may be quite surprised by some of the gifts, you may not even have wanted all of them to start off with, but after a little digging, you will find gifts that will positively surprise and gratify you.
Opening track ‘Life on Hold’ is not, despite its title, about Lockdown. It is about the on-line life we now lead, in which the digital absorption of information has caused mankind’s failure to filter the facts. It is a weighty lyrical theme, but the song’s pleasing groove, very catchy chorus and elaborate keyboard solos remain dominant – and Reingold’s intricate bass-lines are just magnificent. A great start.
It is with the second song, ‘Jinxed in Jersey’, that Tillison’s wildly experimental lyrical approach takes over. In fact it would not be inaccurate to state that ‘Jinxed in Jersey’ is not as much a song it is a fully narrated tale, delivered in spoken word, with musical backing. This long-form poem tells the true story of Tillison seeking to walk to the Statue of Liberty from his hotel in New York. But it turns out that the hotel is in New Jersey. He sets out nonetheless and encounters several colorful characters and places on the way. At the end of a long day on his feet, he finally reaches Lady Liberty herself. The music momentarily turns dark at that point, because the visit takes place ‘behind her back,’ and it is far from a typical sightseeing experience. This sixteen-minute romp includes detailed descriptions of encounters with policemen, street artists, and the real experience of New Jersey (as opposed to the tourist experience of New York.) Tillison is absolutely unafraid to reproduce most of the day’s events, including a few self-effacing (and awful) attempts at a New Jersey accent. He also shares his personal reflections about Frank Sinatra and Joni Mitchell, all set in the context of the urban landscape in which he finds himself. It is largely presented in a light-hearted and jazzy manner, and includes several intentionally hilarious moments. During his journey, Tillison discovers the true grit of New Jersey, Hoboken and the less obvious side of Liberty Island. He unabashedly proclaims ‘You can keep your Empire State building – this is more my scene.’ The poetry certainly dominates the music in ‘Jinxed in Jersey,’ but the imposing chops of Tillison’s band-mates are never far away. I suppose you could say that this is Tillison’s own ‘Englishman in New York,’ but you should definitely not expect Sting’s catchy pop stylings. Expect a sound more like Steely Dan meeting Frank Zappa on a zany day – a true story transformed into a highly entertaining and innovative piece of art.
‘Under Your Spell’ is a gentle love song built on a tender piano melody and beautiful Machin guitar line, ending with some strong Travis saxophone work. Tillison’s voice, with its particular and distinctive baritone, certainly has its detractors, but it has to be said that he pulls this vocal ballad off extremely well due to the sheer conviction involved. The story is quite obviously personal and true to Tillison.
‘Tower of Babel’ brings back the funk and is another song about the impersonal nature of communications in the 21st century. Tillison is angry about it: ‘There’s nothing on my forehead saying you can treat me like the piece of dirt you do.’ The theme gives the band the opportunity to settle into a very satisfying Tower of Power-like groove, and all things are good in the land of The Tangent.
‘Lie Back and Think of England’ is a courageous 28-minute epic that will intentionally test the mettle of the most die-hard Prog aficionados. It is certainly not for neophytes. At first blush, the song might appear to be about the state of UK politics pre- and post-Brexit, but ultimately, it turns out to be more of an appeal to the British people (and indeed humanity in general) to reconcile, communicate and forgive each-other after division. While Brexit itself is not a novel theme for The Tangent, Tillison has approached it with a far more experimental and philosophical perspective this time around – a perspective of human reconciliation, forgiveness and his own deep love for his country. Complete with parliamentary sound-bytes from various UK political parties, this marathon composition certainly requires concentration. If nothing else, the song proves the bona fides of Tillison’s stated refusal to let his Prog just sound like Prog. He has often argued that Progressive Rock should be a musical movement of forward momentum – not just the re-hashing of classic sounds – and this song is his evidence-in-chief. The song pushes boundaries in more ways than one, and the band are given room to experiment within the expansive arrangement. The results are mind-bending. Psychedelic solos, gutsy bass-lines, triumphant keyboards, saxophones, flutes and typically massive Machin guitar solos all contribute to the innovation. But again, be warned that this is no easy listening, and it will examine the endurance of the most ardent audiophiles. In the 14th minute, Tillison pushes the boundaries to the absolute brink with a passage of narration in French. It is a high-risk move, after which, almost as a reward, lengthy musical gratification follows. There is a jarring but symbolic significance in describing the foreign perspective of Brexit in a foreign language, and you should be aware that it will take a few spins before this part sounds natural to you. But it will. And soon enough, tympani and sweeping keyboard flourishes bring the symphonic Prog back in swathes. This section comprises a superb Prog instrumental with the ghost of Frank Zappa in attendance, and it is followed by a triumphant ‘forgiveness’ section that will wash over you like a spring waterfall on a hot day. Could this 28-minute nostalgic journey have been edited? Perhaps, but one feels that this is precisely the result that Tillison was seeking. It certainly pushes the frontiers of Prog as per Tillison’s stated intent, and the result is a song unlike anything that has come before it.
Closing track ‘The Midas Touch’ returns us to less experimental territory. It has a massive funk groove built around a jogging Reingold bass-line, such as only the Swedish king of bass can play. The rest of the band masterfully keep up with Reingold, providing pop, jazz and funk patterns that the greatest of 70’s soul and funk bands would have been proud to deliver. A delight to listen to, I am glad that Tillison chose ‘The Midas Touch’ to be the closer.
There is a bonus track provided in 12-minute ambient extravaganza ‘Proxima,’ which features lots of keyboard and flute meandering. For those who prefer ambient music, it will be a welcome addition, and it is certainly very well-produced, but it is not critical to the album’s success.
The production values of ‘Auto Reconnaissance’ are excellent, and the sonic quality is top-drawer. Vivid storytelling, human behavioral references, political commentary, urban poetry, love, angry social observations – all are to be found here. On the first few listens, you might feel that the lyrics sometimes overshadow the music. But ultimately, repeated listens will cause that feeling to fade, and you will realize that it is all just Progression. A true and genuine attempt by Tillison to find new directions for Prog, while not abandoning his classic influences.
‘Auto Reconnaissance’ is a testament to Andy Tillison’s determination to make The Tangent truly ‘progressive’ in the most contemporary sense of the word. This accomplished composer is certainly not afraid to reveal his own quirks, views and, yes, ‘truth’, and in doing so, he tests the limits of any traditional boundaries. Freshness and innovation do not present a problem here – in fact, you will find yourself a little startled at just how much innovation Prog still has to offer in 2020, when delivered by this fine band. ‘Auto Reconnaissance’ is a vastly eclectic, experimental, challenging and demanding album, but make no mistake – real Prog fans will get it. Expect the unexpected and you shall receive.
Released on Aug 21, 2020 on InsideOutMusic
Key Tracks: Life On Hold, Lie Back and Think of England
The full track-listing can be found below:
1. Life On Hold
2. Jinxed In Jersey
3. Under Your Spell
4. The Tower Of Babel
5. Lie Back & Think Of England
6. The Midas Touch
7. Proxima (Bonus Track)
The Tangent are the following players:
Andy Tillison – Vocals, Lyrics, Keyboards, Composer
Jonas Reingold (The Sea Within, Steve Hackett Band) – Bass Guitar
Theo Travis (Soft Machine, David Gilmour, Travis-Fripp) – Sax & Flute
Luke Machin (Maschine, Francis Dunnery Band) – Guitar
Steve Roberts (David Cross Band, ex Magenta, Godsticks) – Drums