The Tangent, A SPARK IN THE AETHER (Insideout Music, 2015).
Tracks: A Spark in the Aether; Codpieces and Capes; Clearing the Attic; Aftereugene; The Celluloid Road; A Spark in the Aether (Part 2)
The Tangent: Andy Tillison; Luke Machen; Theo Travis; Jonas Reingold; and Morgan Agren.
Birzer rating: 10/10
“If Neal can find God. . . what’s in it for me?”
I’ve never hidden my admiration for all things Andy Tillison. I almost feel like I should always be writing AllthingsAndyTillison™ whenever I mention any aspect of him. For, as we all know, this redheaded and motorbiking mischievous Andy does nothing halfway. Like almost every person in the prog world—artist or fan—he’s a perfectionist. Andy’s not just a perfectionist, though. He’s a perfectionist-plus.
It would be nearly impossible to re-do or even try to top The Tangent’s 2013 masterpiece, Le Sacre du Travail, itself a celebration of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring from exactly a century before. The Tangent reached a fascinating peak (at least, thus far) with that one. It sold well, and well it should have. Le Sacre is a thing of true beauty and grace, a tangible piece of eternity, here and now. On it, Tillison combined—almost impossibly—the mundane with the sacred, and he did so in a way that philosophized without preaching. Not an easy task or accomplishment for anyone.
“Careful with that sax!”
Tillison is a restless man, and we all benefit from his need to make, to produce, to continue, to create, and to communicate.
Nothing stands out as much on this new album, A Spark in the Aether, as the almost-signature energetic restlessness of Tillison. This is not to suggest that we don’t also revel in his many satisfactions. Spark, however, ultimately reveals Tillison’s deepest longings, and his greatest (and quite lovely) imaginings and his desire for justice. Tillison is not just the definition of restlessness and perfectionism, he is also the spirit of charity itself. Whereas the last album considered the routine and liturgy of work, this album explores what might and what could be. It’s every bit as subtle as the previous work, but the subtleties are found in the musical passages, especially the ones that linger, rather than in the structure of the album as with 2013’s Le Sacre.
“Struggling with a Hammond until my fingers bleed. . . to an empty room.”
Tillison has rather famously proclaimed progressive rock as the sum of all music. You want jazz? So be it. 1950’s rock? Great. 1960’s bubble gum pop? Not a problem. Combine them in any way you see fit, and you have one of the many glories of prog, the ability to fuse and meld, the combination of infinite diversity within infinite possibilities. On Spark, one hears funk, funkadelic, rock, prog, jazz, and folk. There’s a bit more Pink Floydish influence than is normal for The Tangent, but, of course, it’s all done so very tastefully.
As mentioned above in the header, six pieces make up Spark. The first, “A Spark in the Aether.” Swirling keyboards and sax open the album. This is a rambunctious piece, a prime example of “prog n’roll,” as Tillison likes to call it. The title and the music fit together perfectly. Truly, there is a small fire that sets off something much larger than itself.
The second piece, “Codpieces and Capes,” could lyrically be the sequel to “Supper’s Off,” the fifth track of the 2013 bonus cd, L’Etagere du Travail. Tillison’s lyrics are at their wittiest, a series of comments about pretentions among the first generation and wave of prog stars. Tillison rightfully mocks the self-indulgence of the era.
“Clearing the Attic,” the third track, is the most fantastic of all the songs, a carefully structure dream wondering (and wandering) what would happen if every thing went perfectly well for those Tillison admires and loves most. Interestingly enough, parts of the track somewhat resemble “Feelin’ Groovy” by Simon and Garfunkel as well as Santana’s version of “Oye Como Va.” This, however, is 2015, not 1966 or 1970, for better or worse. In Tillison’s reality, Guy is famous, Cliff spins tracks for the BBC, and Sally gets to ride horseback across the vast and almost limitless plains of North America.
The fourth piece, “Aftereugene,” I misunderstood at first. I thought this might be Andy’s filler, as it were, a way to connect the first half of the album with the second. Upon several listens, though, I’ve come to realize just how complex this piece is. The best moment is Tillison whispering, “Careful with that sax.” The quality of his voice at this moment–the drama of it–is just brilliant, as is the atonal solo that Travis immediately provides. This is a sleeper song, and it will, I predict, one day be regarded as a Tangent masterpiece. It has everything a prog fan craves—weirdness, beauty, and a connection to our rather glorious prog heritage.
Perhaps the centerpiece of the entire album is “The Celluloid Road,” a full journey through and across America. Not the real America, but the America as understood by a non-American receiving his information from Hollywood. Every one from Clint Eastwood to Jesus makes an appearance in this song, and it really is the perfect road music for traversing the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains en route to the West Coast and the Pacific. The story ends in San Francisco, with talking apes and giant lizards destroying everything. As Tillison notes, he gets to observe it all from the haze of Yorkshire.
The last song brings us back to the first, and it becomes obvious that though Tillison has not created another concept album, he has certainly created a song cycle. And, the song cycle takes us back not just to the first song of this album, but to the very first Tangent album ever, The Music That Died Alone (2003).
As a crass American, I often wonder if the English realize how lucky they are to have Andy. I know the Germans understand his brilliance, as do the Scandinavians. The English-speaking peoples of the world have an incredible treasure in Andy Tillison. Add his significant other, Sally, and they’re basically unstoppable.
Andy, thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. It’s such an honor to be a part of AllthingsAndyTillison™.