A Most Humane Prog Epic: Where Are They Now? by The Tangent

A week or so ago I had the privilege of writing about what I consider to be one of the few songs of the rock era (that glorious era starting ca. 1955 with the release of Black Board Jungle) to have come close to reaching perfection.  I don’t mean perfection without flaw, I mean perfection as the attainment of purpose, a thing reaching its end, the kind of perfection that is fully attainable only in the realm of the heavenly spheres.  In the here and now, we reach for it, but we know we can never quite touch it.  Still, we don’t despair at our failings, we glory in the possibilities.  At least those of us who love prog want so very badly for those we love and admire to reach it.  When they strive, we feel the weight of their struggle and their achievement.

That first post dealt with Rush’s “Natural Science,” the final track on Permanent Waves.  Really, this is how it should have been.  After all, if Neil Peart hasn’t spent his adult life striving for excellence (perhaps, perfection) in all things, no artist has.

This week, I have the equal privilege of writing about another masterpiece, one written a bit closer to the present day.  In fact, much more than a bit. It’s only five years old. But, what a song. Even though we have thirty-four years of hindsight regarding Natural Science and only a half decade for the subject of this post. . . well, it works.

thetangentinterview1So, for my second progarchist track that comes so close to perfection is the first track of The Tangent’s 2009 album, volume V in The Tangent Chronicles, Down and Out in Paris and London (Insideout Music).  Entitled “Where Are They Now?,” the epic takes the listener on one very intense journey from betrayal to regret to repentance and, finally, to a well-earned forgiveness.

And, of course, who else but Andy Tillison could have authored such a song?  Tillison is, after all, our beloved prog hero who offers the world, so openly, equal parts the modern and post-modern muse, the chronicler, and the critic in all that he does.  Though deeply skeptical of almost all things unworldly, he always presents a full earnestness of emotion, an intellectuality rarely seen in this world, and a passion for all things good and loving.

Not surprisingly, Tillison’s lyrics are some of his best ever, offering Waste Land-like vignettes of a number of different persons, including a stock broker and trader; a former Spitfire pilot; and a physician.

Tillison’s title comes from George Orwell’s first lengthy book, a fictionalized autobiographical account of poverty and injustice in Europe.  Though the two works are separated by seventy-six years, they have almost everything in common.  As Tillison would do with his greatest work (so far), Le Sacre du Travail, a reconsideration of 1913 and Stravinsky, Down and Out in Paris and London puts a new spin on Orwell’s great work dealing with post-Great War betrayal, financial collapse, the voicelessly downtrodden, and the desire of demagogues to capture the misery for their own nefarious purposes.

In many ways, Tillison has the right to claim the mantle of Orwell.  They share a similar outlook on life, on politics, on social justice (and the deep failings of our wealthy society to deal with its problems), and on the sacred essence of the human person as well as of the written word.

Take the following lyrics from the opening of Where are They Now?:

Caught in the lights in the underpass

A guy who needs no name

Lights a cigarette and thinks back. . .

He lost the winning game.

The Range Rover is long gone now,

The folks he bought and sold

Are transitory commodities

When investors turn their eyes on gold.

What gives these lyrics so much meaning is Tillison’s depth of conviction when singing them. Indeed, only he could make “Range Rover” a poetic lament, a symbol that ties together the depths of depravity in the one who uses another for his own benefit.

[It’s also wonderful that Tillison references the “Winning Game” from volume II of The Tangent Chronicles, The World That We Drive Through.  But, this is a side note.]

It’s hard not to love Tillison’s voice as—in his vocals—he always matches the seriousness of the music and the lyrics perfectly.

This proves as true in Where are They Now’s beginning as in its end.  The song ends with imagery that could be taken literally or symbolically.

Like a bolt from the blue,

Like a shot from above,

He talked with the folks from the valley below

–and found love!

This reads like the best of Greek myth. Hubris vanquished and humility and love rising superior to all things prideful.

One of the things I about progressive rock is the unexpected segues.  By this, I mean, in particular, that dropping of the stomach or perhaps that explosion of soul we experience, for example, when we peer, for the first time, at Chicago from the observation platform of the Sears Tower. Genesis did this so well, especially, in their immediate post-Gabriel era.  In their longer pieces, Rush mastered this as well, but no where more so than with Exit Stage Left and Broons Bane/Trees/Xanadu.

In modern prog, no bands write segues better than Big Big Train and The Tangent, though there is stellar competition out there.  In Where Are They Now?, there are four of these moments—the kind that makes the stomach drop—that get me every time I listen to this outstanding work of art.  Almost always these involve some interplay of guitar, keyboards, and Andy’s terrific vocals.

What strikes me most about Where are They Now?, though, is the absolute humanity of the song.  In lyrics, music, and flow, this song just exudes the humane qualities Tillison so abundantly possesses.  We feel sick when we realize how corrupt the former owner of the Range Rover is.  We feel equally exalted and forgiving when the corrupt seek redemption and forgiveness.

Whether it’s Stravinsky, Orwell, or Tillison, this is a mark, always, of the highest accomplishments in art.  It is also, to my mind, a mark of accomplishment in the race toward excellence and perfection.

The Genius Rages: The Tangent’s Le Sacre Du Travail (2013)

group ANNOUNCEMENT

Genius

Andy Tillison is a genius.  It must stated as bluntly as possible.  Tillison is a genius.  He’s a musical genius and a lyrical genius, but he’s also just a genius genius.  Actually, this might seem redundant, but it’s not.  Only genius could properly modify genius when it comes to Tillison’s art.

As I mentioned in a previous post on our beloved site, Progarchy, anything Tillison releases is not just an event, but a moment.  A real moment, not a fleeting one.  A moment of seriousness and reflection.

From the first I listened to The Tangent’s The Music That Died Alone, a full decade ago, I knew there was something special going on.  Not only did the cover art entrance me,  but the very depth and seriousness of the music captured my then 35-year old imagination.  I felt as though Tillison was speaking directly to me, asking me to remember the greatness of the musicians who came before 2003, but also inviting me–in a very meaningful fashion–to move forward with him.

cover_2458173122009The Music That Died Alone really serves as a powerful nexus between past and present, present and future, up and down, and every which way.  Only the evocative power of the lyrics match the classiness and free flow (though, we all know what makes something seem free is often a highly disciplined mind and soul) of the music.

At the time I first heard them, I mentally labeled The Tangent a “neo-Canterbury band,” but I was too limited in my imagination, and I would discover this very quickly.  Indeed, each subsequent The Tangent album offers new pleasures and paths for adventure, but always with that power of that Tillison nexus, connecting the past and the future with beauty.

Tillison makes this connection literal in his very fine novella, “Not as Good as the Book: A Midlife Crisis in a Minor.”  The dedication lists close to 100 names, including numerous members (first names only) of the members of various bands from Yes to ELP to The Flower Kings to Spock’s Beard to XTC and to authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and J.R.R. Tolkien.  None of this is contrived.  Just pure Tillison expressions of gratitude.not as good

Privileged (well, blessed, frankly, if you’ll pardon a blatant religious term) to receive a review copy of the new album, Le Sacre Du Travail (Out officially June 24, 2013 from InsideOut Music), I dove right into the music.  Full immersion.  With every album, Tillison has only improved.  Each album has bettered the already previous excellent album with even more classiness, more intensity, and more meaning.  Not an easy feat in this modern world of chaos and consumerist fetishes.

With this album, though, Tillison has moved forward the equivalent of several The Tangent albums.  Again, to be blunt, the album is mind-boggingly good.

Easy listening?  No.  Of course not.  It’s Tillison, it’s prog, and it’s excellent.  What part of those three things suggests easy.  No excellent thing is easy.  Can’t be.  It wouldn’t and couldn’t be excellent if easy.

Satisfying listening?  Oh, yes.  A thousand times, yes.

For one thing, Tillison has brought together some of the finest artists in the business.  I was convinced of the potential greatness of this new album when I first heard David Longdon (in my not so humble opinion, the finest voice in rock today) would appear on the album.  But, add a number of others in: Jonas Reingold (The Flower Kings), Jakko Jakszyk (Level 42), Theo Travis (Soft Machine), and Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree).  And, it doesn’t stop here.  Add Brian Watson (DPRP.net)’s spectacular art work and the cool dj voice of Geoff Banks (Prog Dog show).  Ok, this is one very, very solid lineup of the best of the best.

1913

Ten years ago, Tillison released the first The Tangent album.  100 years ago, Igor Stravinsky released what was arguably his masterpiece and certainly one of the finest pieces of music of the twentieth-century, The Rite of Spring.  While The Rite of Spring hasn’t pervaded our culture in the way the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony has, it’s a close second.  Every person, an appreciator of music or not, knows at least part of The Rite of Spring.

Imagine for a moment 1913.  It was, by almost every standard, the last great year of the optimism of western civilization.  Technology upon technology had produced innumerable advancements, almost everyone in the western world believed in unlimited progress, and even devout Christian artists (such as Stravinsky) had no problems embracing the greatest elements of paganism and folk culture.

In almost every way, Stravinsky explored not only the folk traditions of his era, but he embraced and, really, transcended the modernist movement in music.  He bested it.  His Rite is full of tensions and dissonance, but each of these is overruled and corrected by harmony and emergent joy.  The Rite, no matter how pagan, also has deep roots in the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions.  The Rite–the ritual, the liturgy–has been a part of western civilization since the pre-Socratics debated about the origins of the cycles of the world and history: earth, water, air, or fire.

MARTIN STEPHEN COVER PIC2013

Imagine for a moment 2013.  Well, ok, just look around.  Technology remains exponential in its growth, but few would praise the development of the Atomic Bomb, the gas chamber, or the aerial bomber.  But, then, there’s the iPod.  And, unless you’re Steven Wilson, you probably think your iPod is ok.  Certainly better than an Atomic Bomb.

Optimism?  No.  I don’t need to go into detail, but, suffice it state, T.S. Eliot might very well have been correct when in the late 1940s he claimed the western world in an advancing stage of darkness:

the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do

But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards

In an age which advances progressively backwards?

The U.S. and the U.K. are currently waging numerous wars, and there seems to be no end in sight.

The Rite of Work

As with the Stravinsky of 1913, the Tillison of 2013 surveys the cultural landscape.  Unlike his Russian counterpart, the Yorkshire man finds little to celebrate in this whirligig of modernity.

The “good guy anarchist,” as he described himself in a recent interview (and, not to be too political, but more than one progarchist would be in great sympathy with Tillison on this point), Tillison observes not the Rite of Spring, but the liturgy of work.  We get up, we commute, we sit in our cubicle, we commute again, we eat, we drink, we have sex, we watch a little t.v., and we sleep.  The cycle beings again every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  Who made this deal, Tillison wisely asks.

Throughout it all–pure prog interspersed with very modernist musical elements from time to time–Tillison references much in our modern folk and popular culture, including The Sound of Music and Rush (2112):

In a Rush T-shirt, pony tail, 2112 tatooed on his hands

He’s a star through thick & thin

But he still gets that data in

A modern day warrior, today’s Tom Sawyer is a clerk

He’s a meta for disillusion

He’s a metaphor for life

But, interestingly enough, Tillison does all of this as a modern-day St. Thomas the Doubter.

But I don’t believe them, not ’til I see it

Until I put my finger in the holes

In every word, the lyrics rage against the conformity demanded in 2013–demanded by our corporations, our neighbors, and our governments.  What have we become. . . mere ants, living in a world of bird dung.  Certainly, whatever humanity remains has been given over to some institution radiating power.

And, yet, still somewhat in the persona of St. Thomas, Tillison asks us to reconsider our day-to-day rituals and liturgies.  Is it worth it that we squander what little time we have in the name of the mindless and soulless cycles of modern life?  By far the most powerful moment of an album of immense power (power in the good sense; not in the domineering sense):

‘Cos you can’t take it with you

There’s no luggage allowed

No you can’t take it with you

No matter how rich or proud

Your kids will sell it off on Ebay

For god’s sake don’t waste their time

‘Cos you can’t take it with you

You can leave just a little bit behind.

Summa

Well, what an album.  What an artist.  What a group of artists.  If any one ever again complains about the superficiality of rock music, consider handing them a copy of this CD.  No superficiality here.  Only beautiful–if at times gut wrenching–meaning.

Keep raging, Mr. Diskdrive.  Rage on.

To order the album (and you should, several times!), go here: http://www.thetangent.org/