We live in historic times. Andy Tillison, the driving force behind multinational act The Tangent, seems to agree.
The Tangent are set to release their ninth studio album on July 21. The full title of the album as it appears on the cover is rather long: The Slow Rust of Forgotten Machinery: or “Where Do We Draw the Line Now?” The album continues the band’s tradition of lyrical commentary. This time Tillison points his lens at binary politics, the populist movement, the current refugee crisis in Europe, and the media.
Slow Rust follows on the heels of their 2015 album A Spark in the Aether. For most bands, a two year turnaround is a healthy pace. For Tillison, it was enough time to have a heart attack, lose his motivation to write music, recover, and rediscover his muse. Clearly this guy can’t sit still for long.
The core line-up remains intact since 2015 with a couple notable changes. Tillison continues his roles as lead vocalist, keyboardist, primary composer, and lyricist–but he also takes on drum duties for the first time on a Tangent album. This might sound like a risky move, but Tillison does an excellent job of it. After all, he’s been playing drums for the past 30 years. The line-up of Jonas Reingold (bass), Luke Machin (guitars/vocals), and Theo Travis (saxes/flutes) returns. Plus there is a new member in Marie-Eve de Galtier (keyboards/vocals), Machin’s bandmate from his progressive metal act, Maschine. (Side note: Maschine’s 2016 release Naturalis is amazing. Check it out!) De Galtier’s vocals, which alternate between gorgeous and haunting, add a whole new dimension to this album. They also mark the first female vocals on a Tangent album in a decade!
Response to this album is likely to be polarizing–just like the politics that motivated it. Tillison’s witty and frequently scathing commentary is a poignant look at our modern world, very much rooted in current events. The lead vocals are mostly a vehicle for his lyrics, delivered using simple melodies and spoken word. As much as you may enjoy the music, it’s hard to ignore the message. Tillison takes on politics, the media, ecology, and academia. At the end of the day, your enjoyment of the album will likely come down to one key preference: do you enjoy sociopolitical commentary in your prog?
The album opens with the sublime intro of “Two Rope Swings.” This track has a different tone and lyrical theme than the rest of the album, and for good reason. It was actually written separately. Tillison originally wrote this as a solo track for a kickstarter project. The project produced a photobook and album set entitled “Harmony for Elephant” created by wildlife photographer Lesley Wood to raise funds for elephant conservation and research activities in Botswana. The song was later reworked as a Tangent song for this album.
The track itself is a beautiful piece. It opens with dreamy piano and guitar textures under delicate lead vocals. The layered female backing vocals here create a truly ethereal quality that makes the listener feel like you’re peering into the child’s imagination described in the lyrics. The track builds to a high-energy, jazzy instrumental break in true prog fashion. The track is lyrically ambitious, drawing parallels between a child’s life in the UK and in Africa. It incorporates all the essential elements of a prog epic into a compact 6 and half minutes. Tillison refers to this as a “pocket symphony,” to borrow a phrase from Brian Wilson.
The second track, “Doctor Livingstone (I Presume),” was the first song that grabbed my attention, and after many spins it’s still my favorite song on the album. It’s an extended 12-minute instrumental journey, and it’s one of the best instrumentals I’ve heard in a while. It begins and ends with an anthemic, 80s-tinged melody on the guitar and keyboard that gives way to lyrical guitar playing by the very talented Machin. The track has a sense of direction as it takes the listener through a musical journey that includes a heavy passage, verging on progressive metal, followed by a quiet passage in which Travis’ flute plays eastern melodies that make you feel like you’re floating along the Nile at night.
This song also has a wonderful back story. It was the first song Tillison wrote after recovering from his heart attack in 2015. Tillison explains:
“For a little while after I was ill, I lost my mojo. It was as if I couldn’t find the person that I was to actually write the music. So I stopped writing music, did a few other things, and then gradually, slowly but surely I decided I was going to try to find my mojo. Try to find that spark that makes me write the songs. It was almost like the quest of Speke, the famous explorer, who went off to find Dr. Livingstone and eventually finding him half way up the Nile. Mark Buckingham, the artist, has a really nice picture of me meeting up with myself.” [Author’s note: It was Stanley who discovered Livingstone, not Speke.]
Next up is the album’s 22 minute title track, “Slow Rust.” This is the behemoth on the album. But this is actually the streamlined and condensed version. The original composition clocked in at 30 minutes. Tillison, Machin, and Reingold each went through painstaking finding ways to shorten the piece without losing the overall message and story and managed to cut out 8 minutes. Their efforts were successful. The album track manages to be cohesive and avoid rambling despite it’s length.
Sure, you could argue that some of the lyrics here will date the song. For example, “This is 2016 and we can buy the White House.” But as an American, that lyric hit hard for me… and it always will. The 2016 election was a turning point in US history that preceded a time of tremendous political controversy. We’re still waiting to see where we wind up, but it will always be a historic election in US history. But the lyrics aren’t perfect. The statement that the media is just out “to sell papers” seems anachronistic at best in the 21st century. But aside from a few nit picks, the lyrics here are thoughtful and very well done.
A movement from the piece has been released under the title, “Slow Rust: The Actual Story.” Tillison describes the significance:
“[Slow Rust is] a song about the press. It’s about the way the press whips up hatred between us and other people. How it picks on people. And how it eventually twists the story of something like a family of migrants in a boat, lost at sea, with no idea about whether they will live or die that night. Somehow or other, our press in the west always manages to show you that in the frame of their camera, but then turn the camera around to you and say, ‘How will this affect you? How will this affect your family? What is these people in this boat going to do to you?’ The camera is always turned around. They always see us as being more important because we’re the recipients of their news rather than the people who sat in the boat. That’s why that bit is called, ‘The Actual Story.’ The actual story is their story.”
The last two tracks on the album continue the political and social themes established in “Slow Rust,” but twists the focus to give different perspectives. With “The Sad Story of Lead and Astatine,” Tillison tightens the aperture to focus on the way in which our current polarized politics affect the relationship between two people and friendships break down. Musically the track has a nice Canterbury feel mixed with some jazzy bits and a few heavier guitar moments. Highlights include Reingold playing doublebass for the first time on a Tangent record, Machin playing a scat guitar solo, as well as a drum solo that shows Tillison has ample talent to fill the role.
The album closes with “A Few Steps Down the Wrong Road.” With this track, Tillison uses historical allegory to reflect on the modern populist movement. It was specifically inspired by Brexit. This track is one of the most aggressive and angry on the album, even going so far as to include a punk rock segment. Much of the song uses spoken word vocals for added emphasis on the lyrics.
Making an album rooted deeply in current events is a bold move. It runs the risk of making art that will become dated quickly and will fail to resonate over time. On the other hand, if it’s done well it can become a timeless reflection of a period in history–particularly if the current events are rooted in timeless sociopolitical themes that recur throughout history. Which one is Slow Rust? Only time will tell. But given that we are living in historic times, this album is likely to resonate for many years to come.
The Tangent Line-up:
Andy Tillison: Vocals, keyboards, drums
Jonas Reingold: Electric bass, double bass
Luke Machin: Guitars, vocals
Theo Travis: Saxes, flutes
Marie-Eve de Gaultier: Keyboards, vocals
With Guest Musicians:
Boff Whalley: Vocals
Matt Farrow: DJ