The Tangent tick all the boxes for me. Eclectic, melodic progressive rock with a generous injection of jazz? Check. Lyrics that really mean something, sometimes personal, sometimes political, but with the edges smoothed off by irony and self-effacing humour? Check. Affectionate nod to the Canterbury sound? Check. Superb musicianship with the ability to play a chorus in 15/8 but also in heads down, no-nonsense 4/4 time? Check.
The ability to surprise, even after 15 years and 11 albums? Check. A willingness to draw on other musical genres – not just classical and jazz but funk, house, even flamenco? Check. And double check.
Proxy must be The Tangent’s most eclectic set yet, packing more ideas into single tracks than most bands do in an entire album. They’ve always had a lighter, more mischievous touch than their contemporaries but here they joyously throw curveballs at the listener, displaying influences that you either embrace or stand sniffily on the sidelines, saying: “But is it prog?”
This approach is most obvious in the album’s 16-minute centrepiece, The Adulthood Lie. Set mostly to a relentless, frantic Balearic beat and pulsing bass, bandleader Andy Tillison evokes images of DJs playing thumping dance tunes on an Ibizan beach to a sea of young dancing bodies. “When I was young I fell in love,” he sings in a soaring, singalong chorus as he recalls the impact music first made on him. It’s a tribute to the joyous, uplifting nature of music – you will want to be on a beach with people a third your age, punching the sky and hollering: “In Ibizaaaaahhh!”
But there’s also regret because, eventually, we all have to act our age, don’t way? No, we bloody don’t. We should be dancing to the music until we drop.
As it’s The Tangent things go off in more recognisably proggy directions but there is an edited-down single version that tries to stay true to the beat. (In fact, I think Tillison bottled it; he should have edited it a little more, put the bass and drums louder in the mix and renamed it In Ibiza. How many DJs are going to spin a record called The Adulthood Lie?)
The genre-mixing continues with A Case Of Misplaced Optimism, in which Tillison channels his inner Jay Kay. Actually, I think the groove is too laid back even for Jamiroquai – it says Steely Dan to me. There’s funky bass and drums, blasts of jumped-up brass on a catchy chorus, a bit of jazzy piano and Theo Travis’s expressive saxophone.
At only six minutes it’s musically the most straightforward song on the album – lyrically, however, it switches between defiant pride and wistful regret as it explores society’s changing mores that have made people’s personal life choices more acceptable. “Am I happy in my life like you’re happy in yours… can you give me some pointers?”, Tillison says.
Completing a trio of genre-benders is the evocative instrumental The Melting Andalusian Skies. Yes, we’re in sunny Spain and, to prove it, here’s an opening “toque” – flamenco guitar – doubled up on piano, with accompanying “palmas” – rhythmic hand-clapping and finger-snapping – and a final ‘Ole!’
It’s one of those stop-start compositions that moves between different moods and styles, with Tillison displaying his jazz chops, Luke Machin letting rip on the electric six-string lead guitar and Theo serving up tasteful sax and flute. But every now and then the flamenco elbows the progginess out of the way and asserts itself, like an arrogant male dancer in a tango. And is that a bit of Yes’s Heart Of The Sunrise popping up towards the end?
(As an aside, one of the best guitarists I have ever had the pleasure to witness was accompanying flamenco dances in Seville – absolutely astonishing acoustic playing.)
We are left with two songs that tread more conventional prog rock paths. There’s the storming opener Proxy that grabs you from the off with swirling Hammond organ, Jonas Reingold’s powerful, busy bass and Steve Roberts’s tight, dynamic drumming. Subject matter is the wars fought by proxy across the world but there’s a good four minutes of amazing instrumental dexterity from all concerned before it settles into a bluesy groove and starts making its point.
Meanwhile, closer Supper’s Off opens with a fantastic electric guitar riff – in fact, one of The Tangent’s strengths is that practically every track starts with almost a musical fanfare, as if it’s going to be the best damn thing you’ve heard in your life – before Tillison half-talks, half-sings about our obsession with ’70s prog and our reluctance to give new music a decent hearing (although he clearly isn’t referring to TPA readers, who are so open-minded they have probably bought Spice Girls tickets).
“We tried to change the world,” he sings, “but the world won’t take the hint. They go running off back to the ’70s, and all the other bands are skint”, as indeed a lot of them are – some of them can only afford crisps for lunch. But the music here belies the pessimism – it’s mostly joyous, triumphant and powerful. The occasional wistful moments don’t last long – Reingold’s bass jumps in and pushes everything up to yet another musical climax.
So, to sum up: This is a magnificent musical melange, played with power, precision and playfulness. Recorded during a tour that jammed The Tangent and Karmakanic together as the clumsily-titled Tangekanic, the band are tighter than Sir Nicholas Soames’s speedos.
Top honours must go to Reingold, whose commanding bass propels everything along, and Tillison’s fluid keyboards and almost supernatural ability to conjure up moments of sheer melodic beauty. Lighter than last year’s The Slow Rust Of Forgotten Machinery but more cohesive, its 57 minutes fly by like five and you’ll be wishing it was twice the length.
I have one or two quibbles. Guitarist Machin doesn’t get as much to do as he did last year and I couldn’t spot special guest vocalist Göran Edman. And there’s a danger Andy Tillison is turning into a grumpy old man – perhaps next time it could be about things that make him happy?
But this an album I will go back to time and time again and I defy anyone to match it. Oh, and there’s a bonus track from Tillison’s recent solo album Exo-Oceans that was better than I expected so I’ve put it on my Christmas list, Mrs Furbank.
01. Proxy (16:07)
02. The Melting Andalusian Skies (8:51)
03. A Case of Misplaced Optimism (6:13)
04. The Adulthood Lie (16:05)
05. Supper’s Off (9:53)
06. Excerpt From “Exo-Oceans” (10:25)
Total Time – 67:34
Andy Tillison – Vocals, Keyboards, Composer, Lyrics
Jonas Reingold – Bass Guitar
Theo Travis – Saxophone, Flute
Luke Machin – Guitar
Steve Roberts – Drums
Göran Edman – Vocals
Record label: Inside Out Music
Country of Origin: U.K./Sweden
Date of Release: 16th November 2019