The Tangent are one of the most skilled and interesting bands of modern times. Like all naturally gifted musicians, band leader Andy Tillison seems wholly incapable of sitting still, forever mining his rich vein of complex, dynamic music and shaping it into cohesive, inspired pieces that fuse styles and unite genres. The familiar sound of his vintage keyboards swirl around dazzling guitar parts as these mighty works are anchored by one of the strongest rhythm sections to be found on modern records. Flutes flutter gently, saxophones storm and wail, and bass pedals boom and shake the foundation. Liberal doses of jazz navigate their way around symphonic prog rock, slick pop and trance-like thumping, while thrashy, punky chords and all manner of vocals inexplicably coalesce to form powerhouse compositions that rival even the best of their many influences – bygone and modern alike. No small feat, surely, and an understandably eyebrow-raising proclamation, but these musicians truly are the real deal.
Nobody else sounds like The Tangent. Nobody else could sound like The Tangent, no matter how much they might attempt to. The band is simply too unique to be copied or cloned, ripping their own musical blueprints into a thousand pieces and merrily flinging them into the air to float to the ground like so much confetti. It’s safe to say that over the course of the ten albums since 2003’s debut The Music That Died Alone, Tillison and his rotating lineups have crafted some of the most inventive and flat-out brilliant works the progressive rock field has been graced with since its resurgence in the 1990s.
Auto Reconnaissance, the band’s eleventh volume to date, is practically bursting with some of the most striking music of their career, and may just sit at the top of their mountainous catalogue. Never one to shy away from doing precisely what he wants both musically and lyrically, Tillison once again fashions a series of songs like little works of art that will hopefully be admired for decades to come – they certainly deserve to be. Somewhat dissimilar to recent albums, there is no dominant mood throughout Auto Reconnaissance, and its diversity is its greatest strength. It’s an immensely impressive work of vast scope, and I feel comfortable in quickly declaring it to be one of the top albums of the year. In chatting with Tillison about it, it seems he just might feel the same…
VT: When we last spoke at the time of the Slow Rust album, you lamented that times had become so dark in the couple of years since you had recorded the comparatively fun A Spark In The Aether that it simply was not the right time for humour or light-heartedness. With the global climate even worse now, was it a challenge to make Auto Reconnaissance not sound overtly grim?
AT: The skies did start to get dark in 2016 for sure, and Slow Rust was certainly a reaction to that. And yes, I did say that it was not the right time for light-heartedness, at the time that was exactly how I felt. I would look ridiculous if I were to say that things have now got so much better that it’s time for something upbeat! This album was composed and largely recorded before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, but was recorded during some of the most bitter acrimony seen in the history of Britain – and also in other parts of the world too. However, once into the darkness I found that continuing to write grim protests about entering this tunnel would have been tiresome and of little use. So with a kind of Blitz spirit I decided to write something altogether more ‘up’ on this album, that might indicate a gradually increasing bright spot at the end of the tunnel. I wouldn’t be able to do what you might call ‘happy clappy’ music of course, the album is sometimes wistful, but I feel it’s a broadly optimistic and cheerful affair, which above all, has not given up hope of something better!
VT: How different was the writing process this time around, compared to, say, Proxy, which I believe was written largely on the road with your bandmates?
AT: Actually, this one really seemed a more ‘band working together’ album than even Proxy was. Most of it was recorded here at my home in North Yorkshire. All the keyboards and vocals, all the drums, Steve came here to record. And likewise Theo did all the wind parts here. Jonas and I decided years ago that we were better off working remotely as the whole thing worked out cheaper and we got such a good result, and Luke was always scheduled to record his guitars at his own studio so he had all the tools to do the job best. The foundation level writing was done between August and late November 2019 and the band started to put their own marks on it as soon as they became involved in early 2020.
VT: I don’t know how accurate (or how bonkers) you’ll find this description, but I once half-jokingly referred to your music as ‘Topographic Oceans re-imagined by Frank Zappa for the new millennium’. That’s meant as a compliment, as I think you are a gifted arranger, and that’s a skill that stands out among so many who… well, aren’t.
AT: Well, I’m certainly glad of the description you give of the music, you’ve basically nailed what I want the band to be, which is good because it means that, for you at least, it’s working. There’s probably more formula in there than you’d guess actually. I pay a lot of attention to making sure pieces that are sometimes long and complex still follow tried and tested conventions that give them the feeling of songs rather than just meanderings. This is owing to my having a great songwriting teacher and mentor back in the late 70s who relentlessly made me study Motown, Dylan, Beatles, Springsteen etc. to make me understand that if the song core is good, it no longer matters what genre you’re working in – it can be made to work well within that genre. I love the Zappa/Yes comparison – I have an ego after all. Arranging the music is of course vital to what we do, not just for the good of the piece in question, but because of its crucial identification with The Tangent’s overall soundscape.
VT: The jazz influences are beautifully on display as always, both in the Canterbury flavours as well as the more jazz/rock fusion styles. It seems so many bands nowadays just cherry pick the grand, majestic elements of prog without understanding that the wide range of influences are what propelled it in its infancy. Do you agree that jazzy elements are sorely absent from a lot of current prog rock bands?
AT: Oh, I couldn’t agree more with you here. If the first wave of prog signed out with the UK albums – filled with jazz fusion stylings and the counterpoint that had driven prog forward since the first Yes album – then just a few years later, the second wave opened with Progressive Music stripped down. Polyphonic keyboard pads, slow processional music full of majesty, much more straight 4, more standard chord voicings, hardly any jazz influences and a massive reduction in the amount of rock & roll. It was as if the single most important track in the history of prog to that date had been Afterglow. It wasn’t until the 90s that we started to hear the counterpoint and jazz resurface, Spocks Beard and The Flower Kings both had a good amount of that, and I wanted the band I was going to form to have even more of it. Yes, overall I’m not hearing as much musical conversation between the instruments in modern prog as I used to like. There are some fantastic exceptions, but the music we loved in the 70s was as much built on jazz as it was on rock, and I’d include real rock & roll in the earlier bands that we don’t hear enough of now. Djent and modern prog metal don’t tick that box either for me. Too broken up, too stodgy, leaden music that in so many cases forgets to groove. I have no objection to music that makes you want to head-bang at all, as long as it remembers that you dance with your legs and feet.
VT: Life On Hold is a strong opening track, a concise piece which showcases a lot of the best Tangent elements and the usual excellent playing. There’s an easily identifiable Tangent sound, even before you’ve sung a note. Do you tend to slave over the running order, or do you find it falls into place rather easily?
AT: I lose sleep over running order. I simply find it impossible to do and I end up asking for advice. This time I tried something new and I asked the Tangent Facebook Fan group to help me. I couldn’t play them the songs so what I did was I gave them a list of tracks that they already knew. Among them were Asia’s Heat Of The Moment, a foil for Life On Hold, along with Steely Dan’s Peg which was standing in for Tower Of Babel. The big epics were represented by Flower Kings and previous Tangent songs, Love Don’t Live Here Anymore by Rose Royce and Summer Breeze by the Isley Brothers also represented our album’s content. I asked the group to organise these songs into a mix-tape playlist in the order they thought would work the best. I got hundreds of different combinations – but ‘Heat’ came first and so I started with Life On Hold. And yes, it’s a up-tempo prog footstomper, everyone in the band gets a chance to shine and probably the best choice.
VT: I had a laugh-out-loud moment during my first listen of Jinxed In Jersey. The whole tale is entertaining, and might be one of my overall favourites of your catalogue. How does an experience like that eventually grow into an epic and outstanding piece of music such as this? Do you think at the time ‘I must write a song about this’?
AT: Jinxed In Jersey is one of the best we’ve done. No doubt. Over the years I’ve become more enamoured with using the spoken word within songs, finding it a fairly identifiable Tangent trait that seems to work more and more in our favour. We’ve had spoken word sections on the past four albums now and it’s becoming a pretty important part of what we do. It’s not been particularly prevalent elsewhere since the old days of Rick Wakeman’s stuff which was altogether more Shakespearean and ‘acted’. Ours is usually just recorded ad hoc, off the cuff, no script. The musicians in the band really got this piece, and their contributions have turned it into one of the songs I am proudest of in our whole time as a band. The adventure I had in New Jersey on that day was obviously great material for the way I write songs. I have written several musical travelogues for The Tangent, most based on true life experiences – as is this one – and some, like The Celluloid Road, as imaginary journeys. I enjoy the sensation of being lost, as I was born with a weird and uncanny ability to read the sky and know where I am. I find getting lost difficult, and even a challenge. Most of my lost experiences are as a result of being among large buildings and therefore take place in cities like the New York Metropolis, London, Paris etc… and yes, by the time I reached the Statue of Liberty I knew there would be a song!
VT: Under Your Spell has a nice, laid back vibe with plenty of tasty guitar, and seems to be a rare Tangent love song – or are the lyrics meant to be taken on a broader scale?
AT: No! It’s exactly what it seems to be. It’s a song for my partner Sally who has been with me, and I with her for some 12 years now. I thought it was time that one of my pieces for her should actually be part of what the band releases. Why should she not get her song just because we are a prog rock band with a broom up our bum? Ahhhh… once upon a time this would have been a hit record and I’d have retired on the proceeds. Good job it didn’t then….
VT: Obviously the centrepiece of the album is the massive Lie Back And Think Of England. There’s so much going on in this piece, it’s hard to know where to even jump in to discuss it. You’ve done a lot of large-scale epics, but this one seems even grander and richer than ever before, with plenty of delicious instrumental sections and a timely view of the state of your country. It’s a brilliant track…
AT: It is the most ambitious piece we’ve ever attempted, and on more than one level. Not only is it fiendishly complicated to play, but it’s also ultra-arranged, massive in sound as well as length, mega-dynamic, and the hard bit was doing all that and still making it tuneful – hence the usefulness of those songwriting lessons I had all those years ago. Then there was the challenge of how to make the lyric points come over best, done with a few separate stories that interweave with each other, along with political commentary. And on top of all that I wanted to make a piece about Brexit that wouldn’t annoy the hell out of everyone, and could be enjoyed by proponents of Brexit as well as its opponents – and I wanted to do it at a time when everyone just hated everyone else. It was a tall order. Really tall. But, rather than the possible compromise that lurked dangerously in the wings, I’d go as far as to say that I think we did it. We actually pulled it off. This by no means suggests that it will have worked for everyone, and I’m sure a load of ultra-lefts will think I’ve gone soft and ultra-rights will still think I’m a Loony Lefty who wants to give all their stocks and shares to asylum seekers (they are right). But for me, I stand by it. Its message is pretty simple. Whatever has happened we now have to fix. And we have to fix it together, or it will never be fixed and our country will be broken more by our division than it was or ever would have been by Brexit. There comes a point where the need to put out the fire is more important than discussing how it started. Now is that time. Let the historians have the debates, Let us get back on our feet together.
VT: The core group of yourself, Jonas Reingold, Theo Travis and Luke Machin has now been around for several years and albums. Do you feel (as I do) that this is the best lineup of musicians you’ve ever used? Not to slight any previous members as they’ve all been great of course, but this combination just feels like the definitive Tangent lineup.
AT: Yeah. The four people you mentioned there have all been in the band for at least 10 years each. A lot of personnel have come and gone but there has been a set of constants that work well together. In fact three of the current band were on the second album in 2004 – that’s 16 years. Luke would have probably joined us but he was about 14 at the time. They are the best. They’re way ahead of me in terms of musical theory, knowledge and playing ability, but I learn from them on every phone call and meeting. I think that when Steve dropped into position in 2017, there was a lightbulb moment, everything was green-lit, and this band is terrific. I love it.
VT: InsideOut seems to be a label who allow their bands to make the music they want without much in the way of interference. Your music seems entirely without compromise, so do you ever wonder how different it might have been had you been micro-managed and bounced around from one label to the next? Some bands do endure such nightmares.
AT: Another nail hit smartly on the head by your question. InsideOut has, for some bizarre reason, chosen to sign me and any band I happen to call The Tangent four times now since 2002 on three-album recording contracts. They have only requested, in all that time, one change to one product. In that case it was an insignia being worn by Sid Vicious in the cartoon strip accompanying Not As Good As The Book. They asked for the change as a request, not a demand, and I was happy to immediately comply and call the artist and ask him to use the ‘Anarchy’ logo T-shirt instead of what had previously been there. I value and treasure my independence as a writer. There have never, ever been questions about whether we are doing the right thing, singing about the right things, using the right people. InsideOut have given me this, from the word go, and it is the single most empowering and inspiring relationship I’ve ever had with a company.
VT: How easy is it to forget your own music? Once all the work of making an album is done and it’s out there in the world, does it leave your memory fairly quickly?
AT: It’s incredibly easy to forget. Especially if, like me, you finish an album and never listen to it again. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to sit and listen to their own music, unless they want an opinion because it’s still in production, or they are learning it for a live rendition. A musician only hears the faults in his or her performances and productions, and musicians really get hung up on production, far more so than anyone else – almost to a point where half the album’s time to create and budget is spent on putting an unnoticed finish on the recording. I am just as susceptible to that as anyone else, and I get far too hung up on it. Thank goodness I have members of the band who can help me with the job and sometimes just go ahead and do that bit and give me a break. Luke and Jonas are both skilled in this area, and Luke has twice now been involved in production, totally in control of it on Slow Rust and sharing it with me on this most recent album and this involved him doing the final mixes.
VT: How do you look back on the Comm album now, almost a decade later? Personally, I love that album but I find it scary how some of your apparent predictions there are coming true before our eyes.
AT: Comm for me was not a happy album. It’s not one I have fond memories of, and as mentioned in the previous question, a lot of that is as a result of production. I think my worst ever vocal performances were on this record along with some pretty awful filler material that really did not work as well as I’d hoped. However, it did have two compositions of which I’m proud, these being the biggies The Wiki Man and Titanic Calls Carpathia. I think we did pretty accurately point out the way that the online social disaster was heading, notably in the bullseye of the line ‘Your matter of opinion is the main point of the show in these strange days’. It’s a long time since I heard it.
VT: There’s no question that all of your music deserves so much more exposure… and that’s putting it mildly. But is there a specific album from the back catalogue that you felt didn’t get enough attention, even from your own fan base?
AT: Comm‘s predecessor Down And Out In Paris And London. This album had a title which I never realised – stupidly – that people would think of as a live album. I had no ‘star’ guitarist, Jonas was not with us, and a rather too subtle cover. The album contains some of our finest songs and stories and is to date our worst performing record in terms of sales. Material from it, notably Where Are They Now, is warmly welcomed in concert.
VT: The Zopp album is excellent and I expect to see it alongside Auto Reconnaissance on a lot of Top 10 lists at year’s end. Do you have any other side projects on the horizon?
AT: I’m glad you like the Zopp which is the top of my ‘Best Of Year’ list, a fabulous album in so many ways and all the more so because it is by someone so young. For me, its mere existence is like a vindication of so much that so many of my own age group have enjoyed about music. My involvement in it was a joy, yet I must stress that I claim none of its creative heart. The sounds and compositions all came from Ryan Stevenson and co. I was there to carry out the technical steps to a finished product and I really enjoyed being on board. I am working at finishing off a Tangent fan club release of material of a more improvisational nature, a second Kalman Filter album… and I guess that’s it at the moment. I really enjoy Kalman Filter stuff. My love of Tangerine Dream/Ashra/Klaus Schulze has not abated and this is still an area I love to work in.
VT: Finally, just a fun one from one Van Der Graaf Generator fanatic to another: What are your three desert island albums, if you had to choose?
AT: The Van Der Graaf albums I would take with me are: H To He Who Am The Only One – always my top of tops and the most varied of the albums. Godbluff – because it’s Godbluff. And Do Not Disturb – because I never, ever expected to hear something as great as this again. And I still have thousands of plays of it left before it catches up with the other two. Still so much to discover.
VT: Thanks for your time today Andy. The album is tremendous and I hope to hear many more in the future!
AT: Thanks very much for the well informed interview questions which I have thoroughly enjoyed answering.
Life On Hold · Jinxed In Jersey · Under Your Spell · The Tower Of Babel · Lie Back & Think Of England · The Midas Touch · Proxima (bonus track)