The Tangent (For One) - To Follow Polaris

The Tangent (For One) – To Follow Polaris

The Tangent have been more of a real band in recent years, with a line-up that has been fairly stable since 2013. But there is no disguising the fact that, like the heavens circling the Pole Star, everything revolves around keyboard player, singer, and songwriter Andy Tillison.

Occasionally, he has had to plug the gaps in the line-up when a particular musician has been unavailable – for example, he provided the keyboard-created drums on 2017’s The Slow Rust of Forgotten Machinery. But in 2022, when Tillison started work on the band’s 13th studio album, no-one was available because they were too busy working to pay the bills. So he took the opportunity to see if he could produce it all on his tod, playing every instrument including guitars, bass, drums and wind. The result is an album that fits very nicely indeed into the band’s catalogue.

To Follow Polaris doesn’t sound like a DIY album. It sounds rich and full – Tillison’s keyboards are exemplary, as usual, but all the other instruments work extremely well, as if the band were crashing along together in the studio. The only difference I’ve noticed is that the drums – played on a stick-driven electric kit – sound a little dry and there’s less lead guitar and windy stuff than perhaps there would have been if Luke Machin and Theo Travis had been involved.

But everything else that makes a Tangent album unique is there: The tasty blend of rock, jazz and Canterbury, the complicated yet accessible arrangements, the contrasts of high drama and gentle reflection, the exquisite sense of melody, the epic long song (Tillison has written and recorded more of these than any other prog artist) and the pointed political lyrics, sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes bitter-sweet.

In fact, Tillison must be one of the last remaining protest singers, and I would say he’s certainly the only artist in progressive rock who is consistently writing and recording political songs that rip into the state of democracy in Britain and beyond.

The album’s centre-piece is The Anachronism, a 21-minute condemnation of all forms of government that limit the public’s participation to putting an X on a piece of paper every four or five years, then expect us to shut up and go away while they fuel division, argument, suffering, war, poverty and racism. Tillison doesn’t hold back his contempt and anger: ‘They set the taxes, they order bombs / Define our bodies (and get it wrong) / They say who’s “legal” – (they always are) /And whether wokeness has gone too far / They set the boundaries of what is sex / All with the mandate of a fucking X’.

Tillison mixes spoken word – a recording of a letter to the BBC explaining why our dysfunctional modern world leaves Gen Z riddle with anxiety – with music that ranges from angry and atonal to quiet desperation. There are moments that sound like Yes, others that channel Caravan and the Canterbury sound, some that draw from funkier, more commercial sources. Like most of his long songs, your attention is held throughout thanks to the twists and turns of the music, and not once will you be looking at your watch (as I do throughout most of Tales from Topographic Oceans).

Elsewhere, he laments the plight of the obscure artist in the 21st century, desperately hoping for a response on social media in A Like In The Darkness, a song that has as many mood swings as Tillison himself, while The Fine Line examines the constant bad news flooding pour media, while musically channelling Aja-era Steely Dan, with a chorus that owes a little to the Tony Hatch song Downtown.

It’s not all doom and gloom. First track The North Sky opens with a lovely uplifting chorus as it suggests the fixed stability of the North or Pole Star – also known as Polaris – is something we could all agree on, even Flat-Earthers and anti-vax conspiracy nuts. (it’s reprised in The Anachronism to give that track a much-needed bit of positivity at the end). The Single is joyous prog-pop, an old track from Tillison’s pre-Tangent band Parallel Or 90 Degrees dusted off and updated. Yes, it’s about serious stuff, the relationship between the media and the music business, but it’s all wrapped up in a chorus that seems designed for a live audience singalong.

I also want to single out a brilliant bonus track on the album, a 17-minute instrumental (you get your money’s worth with Tillison!) called Tea At Betty’s Simulation, on the file I’ve got that starts off as easy listening jazz but gradually gets more and more way-out and free until all sense of melody disappears in a cacophony of Zappaesque improvisation and heavy metal excess, before easing gently back into easy listening mode.

The conceit is that this is a jazz quartet playing at a genteel café – you can hear the clinking of teacups and muttering of waiters and customers in the background – that steadily gets louder and more adventurous in an attempt to be noticed by the cake-nibbling clientele. It’s futile of course – no-one notices until they finish and get a smattering of polite applause. The track combines Tillison’s outrageous musical dexterity – it’s all played by him – plus his ability to absorb and recreate a variety of different styles and genres, and his dark humour as the band plays its heart out but no-one gives a toss.

There’s a lot of progressive rock music about these days and the vast majority of it bores me to. But I’m never bored by Andy Tillison and The Tangent – they constantly delight me with their musical eclecticism, their melodic invention, their razor-tipped wit and their pin-sharp political jabs. To Follow Polaris is another great Tangent album. And you know what? Andy Tillison is right. About everything.

[Andy Tillison recently spoke to TPA regarding To Follow Polaris and you can read Kevan Furbank’s interview HERE.]

01. The North Sky (11:09)
02. A ‘Like’ In The Darkness (8:09)
03. The Fine Line (8:01)
04. The Anachronism (21:02)
05 The Single (From A Re-Opened Time Capsule) (5:52)
06. The North Sky (Radio Edit) (3:41)
~ Bonus track
07. Tea At Betty’s Simulation (17:32)

Total Time – 75:36

Andy Tillison: Keyboards, Bass, Guitar, Sax, Flute, Drums, Vocals

Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 10th May 2024

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