Andy Tillison has been going through a purple patch of late. Since his mild heart attack back in 2015, the Yorkshire keyboard player has released four albums as The Tangent, three as a solo artist (albeit under a variety of names), a live recording with Karmakanic and a collaboration with Jonas Reingold and Roberto Tiranti that (allegedly) recreated an old Italian prog classic. He’s clearly a man who knows life is precious.
Some of these releases may have passed under your radar because it’s the big beasts such as Steven Wilson, Marillion, Big Big Train and The Flower Kings who tend to hog the column inches with their new releases.
If you like your music a bit ponderous and self-important, then I guess some of the above-mentioned will sate your appetites. But if you prefer your prog a bit less predictable, blended with elements of jazz, funk and the Canterbury sound, while liberally seasoned with self-effacing wit and emotional honesty, then The Tangent should be top of your menu.
Their latest album, Songs From the Hard Shoulder, is a case in point. Containing just four tracks, three of them over the 17-minute mark, it should satisfy any listener who believes big is beautiful. So far, so prog. But within each of those lengthy monsters you will find moments of beauty, drama and great joy; glorious ’60s-style melodies; touches of soul and r’n’b; jazzy twists and turns; and exciting guitar work, courtesy of the brilliant Luke Machin.
You will also find lyrics that eschew the usual prog fare of ‘mountains that come out of the sky’, and instead deal with real life, real issues, but manage to remain humorous, conversational and unpreachy. For example, the 21-minute centrepiece The Lady Tied to A Lamp Post is an examination of homelessness that points out the instant support available for a broken-down car compared to the lack of care for broken-down human beings.
But Tillison begins by lambasting HIMSELF as a red-haired hippy who, instead of offering help, thinks of the music and lyrics he can create out of the tragedy. So it’s a song criticising the composer for writing the song instead of doing something more tangible than offering a ciggie.
Like a lot of Tillison’s work, it is inspired by a real-life event – he DID stumble across a homeless woman in Leeds who had tied herself to a lamp post so she wouldn’t fall over and hurt herself, and he did have nothing to offer her except a cigarette. She had lost her job and home and her life had fallen apart to such an extent that the only thing keeping her on her feet was the lamp post.
And he did think about how he could turn the encounter into music and lyrics, and then it dawned on him: ‘What the f*** good will it do her if I write a song? She’ll never hear it, I’ll never see her again and it certainly won’t get her off the street.’ That sense of helplessness, that as individuals we are powerless in the face of a massive and growing crisis, informed the song many years later.
This could suggest that The Lady Tied to A Lamp Post is a grimfest, but Tillison cleverly avoids that by giving the music a retro ‘bounce’ through the use of a meaty, synthy bass throb modelled on the Rose Royce song Love Don’t Live Here Any More. In fact, he quotes the song lyrically with the moving line “You abandoned me…” Over its 21-minutes, the song goes through a number of styles and moods, from a gentle, bitter-sweet opening utilising heart wrenching major sevenths to a more muscular section peppered with catchy guitar riffs, in which Tillison points out how easy it is to get the AA or RAC out to fix your broken car. “We can solve any problem on the road!”, he sings. “Blue lights and breakdown trucks all available around the clock. But break down, no cash, in a doorway – you’ll be sleeping in a box.”
At about the six-minute mark, the song bursts into a driving instrumental that’s almost a soundtrack to a busy motorway at night – imagine the vehicle main beams creating ribbons of light as they sweep along the tarmac tracks. Steve Roberts’ drums drive things along, Jonas Reingold’s bass bounces around delightfully and Machin gives us his inspired guitar licks as Tillison provides dramatic organ chords. Then it all effortlessly moves into a full band restatement of the chorus before a moody, bluesy section that gives Machin another chance to shine.
Thanks to so many shifting moods and styles throughout the song, it never once drags its feet – it feels complete and cohesive, even down to a short spoken-word ending in which Tillison points out that Tory-controlled Bournemouth City Council gave homeless people one-way train tickets to get them out of town, and even put iron bars on benches to stop them lying down. It’s the British way, isn’t it? Don’t fix the problem, just shift it on to someone else. Good old Tories, eh?
Elsewhere on the album, things are much more upbeat. Opener The Changes is a burst of joy at finally being let out of lockdown, as Tillison looks forward to hugging people again “without fear… without guilt”. There are reminiscences of past gigs, inspired by photographs in a box of a joint tour with Karmakanic, and a rumination on getting back to whatever passes for normal these days.
Tillison accepts lockdown has created social isolation for some – cue a brief reference to all the lonely people in The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby – but overall, the mood and the music are optimistic as he suggests we have an opportunity to change our lives for the better now that we realise how important is human contact. “Let’s make something happen here! Let’s not just go back to normal!” he sings.
The third and final long track on the album is a dense, twisty, and almost unfathomable instrumental, GPS Vulture. It beggars belief how the band got this together remotely – Tillison says his bandmates liken his long songs to moving somewhere new and eventually finding your way around through important landmarks – here’s the post office, here’s the Indian restaurant, here’s the newsagent.
The tune is actually a reworking of an earlier song, GPS Culture, released on The Tangent’s 2006 album A Place in the Queue, that suggested your GPS may start telling you where it wants you to go, based on the whims of online advertisers. In many ways it was a prescient song that predicted how social media would attempt to dictate our lives and spending patterns.
Today, the influencers, advertisers and opinion-formers are circling us like birds of prey, waiting for an opportunity to pick clean our bones, so the reworking has been named GPS Vultures. It’s almost impossible to describe as the band travel a fast and furious road, seemingly at random and without purpose. Repeated listening, however, reveals themes and melodies that pop back and forth, along with sudden bursts of flamenco acoustic guitar.
Finally, the album ends on something that sounds like a completely different band. Wasted Soul is a fun four-and-a-half minutes of upbeat Motown funk, thoroughly and shamelessly retro. Think of it as a little pick-me-up at the end, a sort of musical tiramisu. It’s one of the things I love about Tillison’s work – he can go from epic long songs (and surely The Tangent should be in the Guinness Book of Records for those, as they have recorded about 25 in the last 20 years) to little slices of sublime pop and soul that will have you dancing around and snapping your fingers.
Songs From the Hard Shoulder is a lovely album that’s both accessible and challenging at the same time – it’s chock-full of melody, emotion and exciting musical moments that repay repeated listening. It has things to say, messages to impart, but the band don’t hit you over the head with them. Tillison’s band, which also includes Theo Travis on flute and sax, have been with him a while now and are superb interpreters of his musical ideas, while putting their own stamp on the recordings. Theo may not get any blistering solos to perform but take his colourings away and it would sound like a completely different band.
And for those who tend to give The Tangent a miss because they don’t particularly like Tillison’s voice (and you’re in good company; he doesn’t like it either!) let me say that, in my humble opinion, the songs wouldn’t work otherwise. They are so personal, emotional, and conversational that they demand the composer sings them. And it works, thanks to good use of harmonies and keeping the melody lines within his range. I’d rather listen to Andy Tillison sing than Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, or Peter ‘Shouter’ Hammill of VdGG.
By the way, some versions of the album contain a bonus track, a cover of UK’s In the Dead of Night, which contains the best impersonation I’ve heard yet of Allan Holdsworth’s fluid guitar.
So, there you have it: Another excellent Tangent album, up there with anything he’s released post-cardiac arrest, and one that really deserves to be in the fast lane rather than left languishing on the hard shoulder.
01. The Changes (17:05)
02. GPS Vultures (17:01)
03. The Lady Tied to the Lamp Post (20:52)
04. Wasted Soul (4:40)
~ Bonus Track:
05. In the Dead of Night (16:11)
Total Time – 75:49
Andy Tillison – Keyboards, Vocals
Jonas Reingold – Bass
Luke Machin – Guitar, Vocals
Steve Roberts – Drums
Theo Travis – Saxophone, Flute
Record label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: Yorkshire
Date of Release: 10th June 2022