September 4, 2020

For all that is said about The Tangent’s often weighty subject matter and acquired taste vocals, at its core is a brilliant cast of musicians whose magnificent works have graced the progressive rock landscape on a regular basis for almost two decades. With leader Andy Tillison’s boundless creativity, dazzling guitar prodigy Luke Machin, skilled sticksman Steve Roberts and dignitaries Jonas Reingold and Theo Travis on board once again, the band have delivered an unapologetic, no-holds-barred masterwork with their eleventh and brand new studio album Auto Reconnaissance. I might as well just come right out and say it: this is easily a top five album of the year.

While numerous contemporaries flail and founder in the prog waters, Tillison and his band deftly sail across them, incorporating new ideas and sounds while retaining their own unique and unmistakable attributes. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Nobody sounds like The Tangent, and nobody ever will. I recently spoke with Tillison about all of this and more, and that interview can be found here:

…but now, let’s look at the album itself in more detail.

Life On Hold is a bouncy, upbeat and energetic opener that is arguably the most typical Tangent-sounding piece on the album. Easing the listener in with the familiar warmth of Tillison’s vintage keys and Machin’s alternating rhythm and lead guitar parts, the piece also puts Roberts’ tasty playing on display early. Tillison’s songs can be packed with a lot of words, but he is a gifted composer who maintains a fine balance, never allowing them to overpower the music. Nothing ever seems to either dominate or take a back seat in The Tangent, it’s all so beautifully orchestrated.

I might as well just come right out and say it: this is easily a top five album of the year.

The Midas Touch is a swirling array of funky guitars, jazzy piano, and an occasionally disco-like backdrop anchored by Reingold’s deliciously fluid basslines. One can only marvel at his flawless playing. It’s as though he’s incapable of laying down anything but the single most perfect, natural groove for the tune in question, and with astonishing panache to boot. The Midas touch, indeed! One of the finest players today, his contribution to the sound of The Tangent cannot be overstated. Incidentally, the song is dedicated to ‘All of us who lived through Covid-19 and in memory of those who did not.’

More funky grooves mingle with bright, jazzy saxophone in the impossibly catchy Tower Of Babel, an album highlight that looks at modern communication (not an uncommon topic for Tillison) and its rapidly deteriorating etiquette. Once again, Reingold’s buttery Rickenbacker playing is pure joy and threatens to steal the show. Of a different nature altogether, the gentle and honest love song Under Your Spell is a lovely nod to Tillison’s partner. A piano-based ballad with simple, heartfelt lyrics that expands slightly to incorporate some fine contributions from the others, but knows its place and never strays from its path. This charming little number is a welcome change of vibe, not only on the album but in the wider Tangent catalogue.

The twelve minute bonus track Proxima is an ambient instrumental piece that is all about atmosphere. Perhaps having more in common with some of Tillison’s experimental side projects, the track slowly wanders into shuffling jazz-infused jamming, while staying restrained enough to never quite shift gears. A pleasant piece that acts as a lengthy coda to the album.

Immediately rocketing to the realm of Tillison’s best-ever songs is the delightful, fascinating and occasionally hilarious Jinxed In Jersey. If ever he has hit one out of the park, it’s this sixteen minute narrative about a day he spent wandering around as a ‘Yorkshire kid in Jersey’. I had an actual belly laugh during one particular exchange Tillison recounts between himself and some guys on the street, and there are some killer individual lyrics (‘I’m walking through a Bruce Springsteen song’ comes to mind). But delightful storytelling aside, the even greater strength of this piece is its incredible weaving of musical sections in between the different parts of the story. Noisy, thrashing guitar chords, chirping flutes, trance beats, sludgy metal, traditional progressive rock, and of course, the big one that The Tangent always brings to the table – jazz – all play their roles as part of this wonderfully bizarre composition. Undoubtedly some people find these types of songs wear thin after multiple listens, and I understand that. But I don’t think that will be the case with Jinxed In Jersey. It’s just too good for limited spins.

Surely the centrepiece of Auto Reconnaissance is the nearly half hour journey Lie Back And Think Of England, a formidable opus so fearlessly ambitious that it seems to tower over the numerous epic-length works found on most of the previous Tangent albums. But where some of those have been steeped in frustration or complaint lyrically, Lie Back ultimately finds Tillison in a more hopeful mindset, illustrating the need for unification of his countrymen – regardless of their affiliations – if his beloved home is to climb out of its current quagmire. He is essentially saying ‘All is not lost – yet. We still have time to fix this, if we act now.’ It’s a simple appeal that blooms into a grand, labyrinthine work infused with all the best Tangent hallmarks. It’s melodic, dynamic, enormous in sound and scope, and unafraid of displaying fragile beauty next to raw, roaring emotion as Tillison delivers its most poignant lines from deep in the wells of his soul. A majestic triumph embodying the spirit of all there is to love about music, it concludes with a wistful revisiting of the closing lyrics to In Earnest (from 2006’s A Place In The Queue) :

Don’t leave me nostalgic for the wrong things in my life,
I don’t want adventures in your grand designs of war.
I’ll take a clear morning with the wind in my hair,
I beg you, in earnest, for nothing more…

Achingly beautiful. Nothing I could write here in closing would match the effectiveness of those lines. Perhaps nothing Andy Tillison ever writes again will either. But it’s a challenge I hope he takes on. In the spirit of this remarkable work, we remain ever hopeful.

Life On Hold · Jinxed In Jersey · Under Your Spell · The Tower Of Babel · Lie Back And Think Of England · The Midas Touch · Proxima