Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Tangent - COMM

This sprawling missive can be read as an innocent's introduction to The Tangent as well as a review of COMM from last year. Enjoy!

If the average length of a CD is an hour, and if after allowing for 7 hours' kip per night somehow you were able to spend every waking minute of every day listening to music, you could theoretically cram in over 6000 CDs into a year's listening. Being a tad more reasonable about it, a music obsessive like yours truly probably listens to around four CDs' worth of music a day, and of that at least half is background music, as somewhere in there we have to eat, take the bins out, and even earn a living, so enjoying the delights of A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers at volume eleven while trying to reconnect a patient's synapses is probably inadvisable. Unfortunately, given the way that modern communication methods have enabled every Johnny come lately wannabe rock star with the ability to churn out an album of more often than not half-cocked and uninspired fare from their bedroom means that inevitably some decent bands are going to fall through the net.

That was a rather long-winded way of saying that I've never really listened to The Tangent, apparently a heinous crime for a Brit prog fan, but as I've come at this reviewing game from the angle of a fan of progressive rather than "prog" music, and there can be a mighty difference between those terms as I'm sure you've heard me blather on about before, I don't feel guilty in the slightest, so there!

However after their high placings in numerous 2011 prog polls I considered it was high time to give The Tangent's latest waxing a spin, showered in accolades as it was. Being the same age as leader Andy Tillison, I can hear that he has brought all the influences our age group are likely to bring to the table, and The Tangent's sound is infused with all kinds of classic prog references, from Camel, Genesis, Yes, Canterbury and all over. That last mentioned Kentish town gives its name to one of my favourite forms of the prog beast and the group's early albums are heavily pointed in that direction, not least the referential first album, with its centrepiece The Canterbury Sequence, which, now I've heard the streaming on the band's website makes me want to go and buy it, it's that good. Also the fact that the likes of David Jackson initially and now Theo Travis make significant contributions to the band's sound is an indication of the quality on display, along with the pleasant surprise that Roine Stolt and Jonas Reingold from Swedish retro-proggers The Flower Kings appear too, and lo and behold manage to leave the bombast of their day job band at the door....well, mostly, as I'm not sure about The Winning Game off the second album, which has one of those Roine Stolt solos that could come from virtually any Flower Kings' album ("Heresy!" I hear you say). The Tangent have even tackled a re-imagining of Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring, abandoned for copyright purposes, which is a shame as what I've heard of it sounds edgy and quirky, just how I like it.

With my brief crash-course in The Tangent over, I'm left with the impression of a band that take influence from many styles, some of which I really dig, and others I'm not so sure about from a perspective of personal preference. Onwards and upwards then to COMM, released last year to high acclaim from prog quarters, some of it bordering on gushing praise, which always tends to put me off. Never trust a fanboy (or girl), although I am as guilty as anyone with my fawning over a certain resident of Hertfordshire, UK!

COMM is an album that has far more of a symphonic prog bent than the earlier laid back and in places jazzy sound, not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but in my time of very brief exposure to The Tangent's music I have already experienced a preference for the earlier works. But hey, at least they are not standing still, a high crime in world of prog in my humble opinion, and a crime committed by far too many bands who like to consider themselves of the genre.

First off, the attention grabbing artwork by long time collaborator Ed Unitsky will instantly draw you in, and the front cover (see above) gives big clues as to the theme of the album. I say theme, as there are a couple of songs that sit outside any perceived concept, but the theme based around the history and future of communication technologies and social interaction is present and correct on the rest of the album. This is a subject close to Andy's heart as it seems he was a pioneer in the promotion of music via the internet.

The Tangent are a band who have had more line up changes than Roman Abramovich has had managers (apologies for a comparison lost on those of you not into football, but I'm sure you get the gist), and this time round the band feature Andy on keyboards & vocals, Jonathan Barrett on bass & vocals, Theo Travis on saxes & flute, Nick Rickwood on drums, and last but emphatically not least, new boy Luke Machin on guitars. Apparently they got through four drummers in the two years the album took to make, Nick ending up on the record, although he has since been replaced by a returning Tony Latham

The real find in this line up is 22 year old Luke Machin, a gifted guitar whizz kid, who at a mere thirty years younger than band leader Andy has injected youthful enthusiasm and an all round knowledge of the fretboard by the bucketload. While one can only be impressed at his jaw-dropping and all-encompassing technique, there is a tendency to squalling in his solos which is not really my cup of tea, and there is definitely a triumph of technique over soul in places, something I'm sure will be addressed as he develops his own style and learns the valuable "less is more" lesson. In a few years he'll be up there with the best plank spankers, no question.

For this listener and the rest of the uninitiated it has to be said that Andy's singing is an acquired taste, and as descriptions go "singing" is stretching it a bit, as slightly off-key growling (original meaning, not the metal variety) might be closer to the mark. Being a singer who can't sing never hindered Bob Dylan or Lou Reed, so he's in good company I suppose, but at least the idiosyncrasies of those two were in tune. I find Andy's straining for the note and only occasionally hitting it a bit hard to get used to, and possibly realising his limitations there are passages that are semi-spoken and these work far better than the sung parts.

Looking at the track listing below one is drawn to the two epics bookending the album, and having had to endure some sorry excuses for prog epics recently I am already wary, as some bands use the long track trap to entice the more gullible punter to their over-stretched efforts. No worries here though as both The Wiki Man and Titanic Calls Carpathia have a strong sense of melody and dynamics that more than adequately fills the minutes. The album opener starts off sounding like a forgotten Genesis song, initially dominated as it is by Andy's synth lines in the mould of Tony Banks. The Wiki Man is a detached look at how the internet as well as being a life enhancing communication tool also enables every asshole with a rancorous opinion airtime to express their bile....better be careful whence I tread here...ending with our protagonist declaring "Am I nothing - Am I just lines of data?" "Everyone's a journalist (that's when they're not a star), and those who ain't celebrities like to diss the ones who are" is a line that makes me smile, Andy's certainly got it right there! A nice touch is the piano and synthesiser solo provided by internet competition winner Adam Roussak, a novel idea if ever there was one. Nicely varied in pace and style and well constructed, The Wiki Man goes through all the musical twists and turns needed to keep one's interest over its 20 minutes. Titanic Calls Carpathia gives us a potted history of electronic communications from the ill-fated Titanic's distress call in Morse Code to its sister ship, right up to Apollo 13 and beyond. Musically less varied than The Wiki Man, and straying into anthem territory at times it nonetheless does not outstay its welcome over its 16 minutes.

For me the strongest song here is atypical of the rest of the album. Jonathan's Shoot Them Down was originally written in the eighties against the background of the UK miners' strike and the wanton destruction of Northern communities by Thatcher's uncaring libertarian policies, the anger and emotion of the lyric being no less relevant in today's stringent times, as the line "Shoot them down in the wars of the world" will testify. A song for the 99%, after all "we're all in this together" eh, Dave? This aching lament of a ballad ends on a plaintive and restrained solo from Luke, very nice indeed.

The other song that does not necessarily fit in with the thematics of COMM is The Mind's Eye, a tale of remaining the same young age in your head while bits fall off, hopefully metaphorically speaking of course. As I'm the same age as Andy I know exactly what he means and the frustration those of us of a certain age feel as our bodies slow down is expressed well in the spiky and slightly discordant music of this restless tune. Mention must be made here of Luke's 300 miles an hour "ants in the pants" guitar solo that compliments the mood perfectly.

If you like your trad prog and enjoy hearing its influence in a modern setting then this album will not disappoint, assuming you can handle Andy's vocals. As they say on their website The Tangent are "Alive, Alert, Ambitious & Skint", and buying this album might make the last word of their motto a little less all pervasive for Andy and the lads, whoever they may be at this point in time.

Buy one of various editions here by hitting SHOP.

01 The Wiki Man (20:14)
02 The Mind's Eye (8:14)
03 Shoot Them Down (6:45)
04 Tech Support Guy (5:51)
05 Titanic Calls Carpathia (16:31)

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