Of this new reboot of The Tangent, Andy Tillison says “After all the different things we’ve done, this time it seemed right to come back to our prog roots and ‘stock in trade'”, and that they have certainly done. Although I found it a little disappointing many people loved the last album to emerge under The Tangent banner, Le Sacre du Travail in 2013, but A Spark in the Aether puts things back as they should be with a quintessential Prog album that plays to the band’s strengths by referencing the past whilst utilising many different styles to take the music in new directions.
It has been quite a ride since the debut release, The Music That Died Alone, arrived in 2003 wearing its nostalgia for the classic years of Prog proudly on its sleeve. Over subsequent releases The Tangent could have descended into a tedious festival of rehashing and pastiche but thanks to Tillison’s unique musical vision and the contributions of the many skilled musicians who have been involved over the years the band has taken us to many exciting places in a catalogue peppered with fantastic pieces of music.
This is their eighth studio album – not bad in 12 years – and it comes as no surprise that a band that has not maintained the same line-up for two releases in a row has a new set of personnel. Bassist Jonas Reingold, one of the most inspired instrumentalists in prog, and Theo Travis, the icing on the cake for any recording that he graces, remain from the line-up that recorded Le Sacre du Travail. They are joined by Luke Machin who was such a big part of The Tangent era that brought us the COMM album. The biggest surprise, and the one most anticipated by me, is the recruitment of Swedish drummer extraordinaire Morgan Ågren, alongside Jonas the other half of the dynamic rhythm section for Kaipa and a man who started young, even getting to work with Frank Zappa. The press release notes that “Morgan introduces to The Tangent a real live energy full of inspiration and eccentricity” – it does not lie.
The opening title track sees an old-school keys riff introduce the band for a galloping chase into the verse. Andy’s voice may still be an acquired taste for some but it suits his words perfectly in this paean to the quest for new music that can measure up to the glories of the past. The rhythm section is immediately visible as the world class coupling they are and this is a suitably up tempo introduction to an album swathed in history and respect for the past but which also seeks to expand the canon.
With the subtitle harking back to the debut I was expecting something in the same ballpark to that album but that is not what A Spark in the Aether delivers. There is familiarity but a healthy dose of the unexpected with new textures and avenues added to the palette. It all sounds very different to The Music That Died Alone and therefore the Volume Two appendage to the title is a little misleading, although some of the thoughts and images conjured up are similar. In his interview with Andy Tillison (which you can read HERE), TPA’s Dave Baird asked him about this. Andy’s response:-
“It’s a cynical and underhand trick to try to get all the people who liked the first album to listen to the new one! Well that’s one view which is bound to surface on some forum or other – but in fact, the album does have very close links, that whole business of making the music itself the lyrical subject matter was an important part of the first album, as was that Joyful ‘up for it’ sound that we’ve gone back to here. It’s a bookend of twelve years really and it just seemed to me that we were doing a second volume and it was my decision to subtitle the album as Part 2, not the record company. of course, we’ve made the cover have links too and Ed Unitsky has done a terrific job with that…”
And that is indeed the case. Beyond the similarities of the cover imagery the music consistently displays the drive, passion and enthusiasm that drew me to The Tangent in the first place. Lyrically, a number of the tracks see the writer reminiscing about the music of his youth, but elsewhere other subject matter is drawn in, although often shot through with a similar deep-seated nostalgic slant. Tillison has certainly developed his lyrical work through the intervening albums and there is a down to earth tone here typical of his writing – “fire escapes in Leeds” rather than Narnia and unicorns – and the turn-on-a-sixpence instrumental firepower really make the words shimmer.
The first of the two epics, the unashamedly retro 5-parter Codpieces And Capes opens with a spoken voice deriding pretentiousness behind a Van der Graaf organ that ramps up with a great keyboard riff and spicey guitar solo as Theo adds some of his special touches. The first part is uplifting and wide-eyed punctuated by lovely harmonies, that keyboard motif and some baroque flourishes. Machin fires off some excellent solo passages and there’s a brief reference to G.P.S. Culture from the A Place in the Queue album. The second part takes things in a jazzier direction as Andy appeals to the legends of the past – and no doubt their listeners – to acknowledge the contribution made by the artists of his generation, Andy’s vivid imagery conveying both his awe and frustration. The third part is heavier with stunt guitar against pounding rhythms into a jazzy section with lovely flute and lyrics that will get old prog fans smiling and nodding. Part four features Andy’s reminiscences of ELP live in 1971 leading into a reprise of the first part with some fine harmonies. As a whole it’s a well realised and fondly recounted overview of how the music of today has to face up to the legacy of the past and is played with an uplifting enthusiasm.
Moving on and Clearing the Attic is funky and fresh, a positive verse leading into fine Hammond and guitar solos. Morgan’s drumming drives it along with some stunning touches before things break down into a seemingly semi-improvised jam section which builds again on a strident rising pattern. The angst of Machin’s blistering guitar solo is soothed by Theo’s flute and then the funky main riff re-emerges as Andy imagines a fantastical future where prog is riding a commercial high again, many of the stalwarts of the U.K. scene getting a namecheck. Wishful thinking? Undoubtedly, but you can but dream… The references may be unfamiliar to many and the intended warmth and humour might therefore be lost, an in-joke style having the ability to alienate and is best used sparingly, but as an integral part of Tillison’s writing it is unlikely to be going anywhere.
A quiet acoustic intro of guitars, low-key organ and flute with a disquieting air opens Aftereugene, emerging hints of classic Pink Floyd culminate in Andy intoning “Careful with that sax…” to unleash a squally burst from Theo, a steady rhythm continuing beneath the screaming. As homage goes it’s nicely done and after a slow start the track builds to a smouldering moodiness that is quite captivating.
The second epic, a 6-part rumination on Americana and the way it is depicted in the movies, takes the album in a very different direction. Another strident intro gives way to the wide open spaces of the U.S., Tillison’s particularly well observed essay on the familiar yet fake vision of America as portrayed in movies and on TV, the references well chosen and familiar so that you can’t help but visualise it all in your mind. The backing is tasteful and atmospheric but soon the pace builds with stabs of brass giving things a funky swing, Andy narrating the non-visual scene we are “watching”. Piano and wistful guitar take us away from the chaos of the city, again the road trip feel through the endless empty spaces is vividly realised. A funky edge re-emerges with piano and Hammond before dissipating into almost nothing with The Inner Heart, the imagery again absorbing. The funkiness is soon back, with a hint of Zappa here and there, to depict a movie-goers fantastical image of San Francisco as if its reality were completely unknown. It’s thumping and upbeat with a good dose of humour, particularly the cheeky referencing of the Shaft theme. The reprise of the opening part brings the track to a suitably wistful end and The Celluloid Road ranks with the best of The Tangent’s past epics.
The joie de vivre of the San Francisco segment of The Celluloid Road is justifiably given the limelight as a bonus piece. Tillison has commented that “Funk and Prog are like two estranged sisters. They existed side by side in the early seventies. Both musical forms relied on precision musicianship. Both forms embraced the emerging synthesizer technology…San Francisco is The Tangent moving slightly outside the familiar surroundings of Progressive Rock…inspired by the TV theme tunes of the 1970s with shows like The Streets Of San Francisco, Kojak and films such as Shaft and Bullit“. And so it comes across, a funky, flashy, over the top tribute to an almost magical place, the band having the skills to both make it work and to integrate it all into the sounds of the rest of the album.
The album proper ends, Flower Kings style, with an extended second part to the opening track. Melancholy piano and acoustic bass gives a late night jazz setting, Jonas and Theo lifting it to the next level with an injection of controlled pace and gorgeous sax melody, echoes of the opening track floating through the background. Machin adds a distinctively sinuous solo and the tempo picks up for a triumphant romp to the finish with reworked variations on the opener. A fitting finale and very well done.
This is a wonderfully organic recording that has once again reinvented The Tangent. The playing throughout is, as you’d expect, top notch and this is certainly an album to immerse yourself in. As a band – and I’ve said this before! – I hope they stay together and see where they can take things next. The Tangent has always been a hell of a journey – sometimes frustrating but always fascinating – and they’re back on top form with this one, doing what they do best whilst spicing things up with the unexpected.
[TPA’s Dave Baird recently caught up with Andy Tillison to discuss all things Aether, you can read what he had to say HERE]
01. A Spark In The Aether (4:20)
02. Codpieces And Capes (12:34)
(i) We’ve Got The Music!
(ii) Geronimo – The Sharp End Of A Legacy
(iii) Trucks & Rugs & Prog & Roll
(iv) A Night At Newcastle City Hall, 1971
(v) We’ve Got The Music! (reprise)
03. Clearing The Attic (9:35)
04. Aftereugene (5:47)
05. The Celluloid Road (21:37)
(i) The American Watchworld
(ii) Cops And Boxes
(iii) On The Road Again
(iv) The Inner Heart
(v) San Francisco
(vi) The American Watchworld (reprise)
06. A Spark In The Aether (part two) (8:16)
07. San Francisco Radio Edit (bonus) (4:59)
Total Time: 67:08
Andy Tillison – Keyboards & Vocals
Luke Machin – Guitar
Theo Travis – Sax & Flute
Jonas Reingold – Bass
Morgan Ågren – Drums
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Year of Release: 2015