Back in the seventies, the epitome of having “made it” (and maybe a bit of self-congratulatory excess) was the release of a triple vinyl live album. Some of the more notable examples are Yes’ Yessongs, ELP’s Welcome Back My Friends…, The Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72, and Leon Russell’s Leon Live!. The reason they were must haves was that the concert experience was a different animal from the studio recordings of the same songs. The live version was extended, revised, exciting, deconstructed, and took chances. Rightfully so, such albums sold in massive amounts and received critical acclaim.
Apparently, Andy Tillison was also listening as a kid. One of his dreams has been to issue a triple live album like those of his heroes. That dream comes to fruition with Pyramids, Stars and Other Stories: The Tangent Live Recordings 2004 – 2017, and it is indeed a worthy successor to this hallowed canon. Comprised of three concerts that have all been previously released as unofficial bootlegs, Pyramids… showcases the Roine Stolt version of the band performing songs from the first two albums in Germany in 2004, the COMM band in the UK in 2011, and the current band in the US in 2017.
As a fan of The Tangent since the debut album, I have always had the same two thoughts about each record. First, the songs are effing brilliant. But there is an oomph which you can hear just beneath the surface that never quite punches its way through. Pyramids addresses that problem in spades. The band feeds off the audience’s energy and radiates it back in unending waves of sonic assault. No matter who is in the band, the conviction of each musician shines through and elevates every song to the point of making these the definitive versions in nearly every case. The only thing missing is the sax and flute contributions of Theo Travis, who was unfortunately unavailable for any of these shows.
The first six songs are from a German show featuring the first two albums. Even though the backing band is essentially The Flower Kings, the strength of Tillison’s writing is such that it is his identity alone that prevails. That is a credit to the professionalism of the musicians as well, as each one performs for the benefit of the song. And what a great selection of songs it is. Opening with The World We Drive Through from the second Tangent album, the band eases in with piano, guitar and keyboard woodwinds, building into its changes, from crunchy to pastoral and back again.
One of the things that sets The Tangent apart from its contemporaries is its incorporation of jazz elements, which it manages without sounding particularly jazzy. Canterbury Sequence is a prime example. Andy Tillison flirts with scat vocals, while Jonas Reingold’s bass splits the difference between rhythm and melody. Winning Game has Roine Stolt reprising his lead vocal from the studio album; I dare say his doing so only highlights Andy’s vocal limitations. To his credit, what Tillison lacks in vocal prowess he more than makes up for in the passionate delivery of his impressively literate lyrics. No swords and sorcery when stories stolen from the headlines will do. Game‘s tale of monetary greed and lack of compassion for one’s fellow man is reflected in the alternating ferocity and tenderness of the music. Another notable aspect of the song is the first of several appearances from other pieces of music. Sly quotes from both In A Gadda Da Vida and the Bacharach/David tune What The World Needs Now Is Love are representative of the sense of humour that balances the more serious moments. Elsewhere, Tales from Topographic Oceans and Steely Dan’s Do It Again make cameo appearances, making for a fun listen.
In Darkest Dreams is the 20 minute-plus epic of the concert, featuring a dual Tillison/Stolt vocal and a real keyboard workout showcasing both Tillison and second keyboardist Sam Baine. The song legitimises its length with a plethora of ideas and moods. The one misstep on the album is the inclusion of an impromptu encore of ELP’s Lucky Man as the close of the German show. The revised arrangement featuring piano was a smart move, but the riskiness of covering a prog classic can only invite comparisons to the original. Honestly, can anyone compare to Greg Lake’s voice? Vocally, the audience sing-along is the best part.
The second disc (and album sides five and six) feature a mix of songs from Southend-on-Sea (2011) and New Jersey (2017). Here the band really hits its stride. Had this been released in the glory days of the live album, A Spark in the Aether would have been released as the single and gone on to become a huge hit. The synth lead is full of hooks but never lets up on offering proggy delights. I can almost hear this following up Asia’s Heat of the Moment on some enlightened radio station. It’s a perfectly compact prog song that shows off its peacock feathers just long enough while masquerading as a top 40 tune. Likewise, A Crisis in Mid Life could have easily fit on Asia’s debut album with its command of commercial and highbrow appeal.
A Sale of Two Souls deconstructs the song to a simple, emotive keyboard and vocal performance. By contrast, Perdu Dans Paris and Doctor Livingstone (I Presume) are tour de forces of instrumental prowess, highlighting the guitar of Luke Machin. The latter is one of my favourite tracks on the album, not least among the reasons being the amount of ground it covers both stylistically and artistically.
The CD version of this set contains two bonus tracks. The first is the Southend performance of Titanic Calls Carpathia. This epic begins with a drum duel that at first seems disjointed and irrelevant to the tranquil keyboards that begin the song proper. But again, the well-thought-out construction of the song becomes obvious as the pieces fall together. Despite its nearly nineteen-minute length, there is no filler here. It would be nearly impossible to imagine this song without any of its component parts. The second bonus track is the fitting close to the album, Two Rope Swings, recorded in New Jersey. A poignant story of two children constructing rope swings in disparate parts of the planet, they are ultimately connected by the elephant herds an African child sees from his perch and the ivory piano keys the European child sees as his right.
If you are a fan of The Tangent, Pyramids, Stars and Other Stories is an essential addition to the canon. Not merely a rehash of the studio cuts, these performances breathe new life into what were already great compositions. If you are new to the band, this is as fine a place as any to begin your journey. The gods of the seventies triple album would be damn proud.
01. The World We Drive Through (14.42)
02. The Canterbury Sequence (9:08)
03. The Winning Game (12:27)
04. In Darkest Dreams (20:34)
05. The Music That Died Alone (12:51)
06. Lucky Man (5:41)
07. A Spark in the Aether (4:21)
08. A Sale of Two Souls (6:17)
09. Perdu Dans Paris (10:55)
10. A Crisis in Midlife (7:37)
11. Doctor Livingstone (I Presume) (11:57)
12. Titanic Calls Carpathia (18:34)
13. Two Rope Swings (8:12)
Total Time – 143:16
Andy Tillison – Keyboards & Vocals (all tracks)
Jonas Reingold – Bass (all tracks except 8,9,10 & 12)
Luke Machin – Guitars & Vocals (tracks 7-13)
Steve Roberts – Drums (tracks 7,11 & 13)
Roine Stolt – Guitars & Vocals (tracks 1-6)
Zoltan Csörsz – Drums (tracks 1-6)
Sam Baine – Keyboards (tracks 1-6)
Tony ‘Funkytoe’ Latham – Drums (tracks 9,10 & 12)
Dan Mash – Bass (Tracks 9,10 & 11)
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: International
Date of Release: 27th January 2023