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The Tangent - Down And Out In Paris And London CD (album) cover

DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON

The Tangent

 

Eclectic Prog

3.74 | 207 ratings

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grimtim
5 stars I have always thought that Greg Lake sounds like Neil Diamond. I've thought that since childhood when my older sister used to play "Hot August Night" ceaselessly. I don't care much for that crooning style and consequently I don't really care for Greg Lake's voice that much. The thing is, I just love ELP. So did I ever wish that ELP had a different singer? No. I've had to listen to my Mum telling me that none of my favourite bands could sing, friends who hate Yes and Rush for the same reason. Did this ever stop Geddy Lee from singing? No.

So it is with the Tangent. I end up loving a band where no review of their music is complete without "despite Tillison's vocals". I wish to be the one who does a review, (my first review since I worked staff at "Disc" -remember that? I think my last review was for Mud) of the Tangent where the vocals are actually the centrepiece of what it is that the band do and why they matter. Despite nothing.

This is the Tangent's fifth studio CD. A band who have quietly dominated my own and many other prog rock aficionados listening during this decade, in much the same way as the Flower Kings and Spock's Beard did in the 90s. Like all the best bands they have a tortuously changing lineup which usually dominates the first half of any review, telling us who's in and who's out. So to pass over quickly, out are all members of Flower Kings, in are Jonathan Barratt (bass) Paul Burgess (drums) and the guitar parts are now handled by Andy Tillison apart from a "guest spot" by Jakko which implies he's not a member of the regulars any more. Theo Travis, Guy Manning and Andy Tillison are still there. Tillison makes big play of the fact that they are all English this time. I don't care if they are from Irkutsk.

The album itself is presented in a sort of blurry digipack package with the Eiffel Tower at night taking the front cover. Throughout the rest of the package, everything seems to be based around blurred traffic shots or "time lapse ribbons" as Tillison mentions in the lyrics of the song "Perdu Dans Paris". It's hardly the Roger Dean style stuff of Ed Unitsky and I think that it looks far more like the front of a jazz album than a prog rock epic, but when you get to the music inside, it does all make sense and in fairness, Ed Unitskie would not have done.

The album kicks off, as Tangent and Transatlantic and Flower Kings albums tend to do, with a twenty minute epic called Where Are They Now, nicely cut up into little meaningless (to the actual playing thereof), but appealing subtitles like Europe by Ebay or The Losing Game. Already a nod to those lovely LPs with subtitles like "Sure as Eggs is Eggs (aching men's feet)", "The Solid Time of Change" and "The Clot Thickens" The Prologue section starts with a kind of cross between Mark Knopfler's "Local Hero" soundtrack guitar theme. I worry about that. For approximately 10 seconds when I realise I like it anyway. By the time the vocals come in we've had the rise and climax of this theme with Wishbone Ash harmony guitars, a pretty obvious phrase from Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" (those of us who have the Tangent's fan-only album 'A Place on the Shelf' know where that came from!), a mad jazzy section with piano a guitar fighting it out against a groovy bass line, some keyboard punctuations that could have been in Karn Evil 9, the re-appearance of the first theme played on flute, the rebuilding of that theme and subsequent development into the first song section. That lot took about three minutes. I've heard whole albums with less ideas and influences than are packed into those three minutes.

"Caught in the lights of the under-pass, a guy who needs no name lights a cigarette and thinks back, he lost the Winning Game" Tillison knows how to hook people into his stories because they actually open like novels or good Tarantino style cinema. Darkness, street lights, traffic, cigarette, mystery. This section gives us the clue to what is happening in the song. It's a series of little sequels to songs that the band have done before. Not musical sequels, lyrical sequels. This one is for the Winning Game, a track from their second 2004 album. It seems that the character here is now down at heel after his financial success and selfishness portrayed in the earlier song, here he's in the recession, with the rest of us. The whole piece whisks us round what it is that the Tangent do best. There's great keyboard/guitar interplay jam sections, diminuendos to gorgeous little themes, complete breakdowns, chaotic sections, songs within songs - rabble rousing choruses, a whole slew of different keyboards sounds. if anyone like myself, fell in love with the band for the songs "In Darkest Dreams" or "In Earnest", well this is totally on a par with those two. In fact "Earnest" is the last stop of the sequels journey, and with some achingly beautiful lines from the apparently "weak singer" - lump in my throat here at any rate - the thing gradually builds up into the best progressive rock sax solo since Wish You Were Here, Theo Travis surely claiming his crown as the King of such things and fades away with a tuneful, soulful guitar solo back into the theme that started the whole thing off a mere 20 minutes ago. Tillison amused me in an interview recently where he was asked about why he wrote songs that were so long. He said "They're only as long as an episode of Scooby Doo" Even I hadn't thought of that and I've been defending long songs for 40 years now. This is a monumental track, a proper epic that deserves its length. It passes fast like "Close to the Edge" does. At the end of boring geography lessons I'd look at my watch and think "20 minutes to go". I found that if I sung "Close to the Edge" in my head, the dinner bell went off a lot faster. This would be an ideal candidate.

After a fireworks display like that we need a respite of course, and for two bars of that sort of Genesis Duke-era drum machine it seems like we're going to get it. Wrong. The whole thing is a trick and Peroxetine 20 kicks in like someone throwing you what appears to be a tennis ball which turns out to be made of lead when you catch it. A randy riff that sounds like Van Der Graaf being annoyed blasts in accompanied by a synth line that's so shrill it sounds like your smoke alarm has gone off. My KIDS told me to turn it down for goodness sakes! A few bars of that and we're into night time traffic again, smoky atmospheres with cool vibraphones, dirty snarling saxophones and references in the lyrics to the Truman Show perhaps "The traffic's just going round and round". This song appears to be about the effects of anti depressants like Paxil and Seroxat which are based on Peroxetine. (Wikipedia - citation needed:-)) Mood and melody do play a big part, this song does rather use that Porcupine Tree ON/OFF technique where things just blast in and disappear. Bass playing is liquid and begins to suddenly make you think, "This isn't Jonas Reingold any more but it's really good" The song suddenly shifts into a more typically Tangent instrumental section. I like this very much with it's twists and turns, yet somehow feel that it one of the album's least convincing transitions and feel that this section is almost incongruously isolated from the rest of the song as though it's an idea they wanted to use so they just stuck it in there. The first of two! Tut Tut! When we get back out of the prog and into the song though, the urgency of the piece is certainly still there and this song is still very good and surprising listening if nowhere near as perfectly formed as the opener.

But with perfect formation we are not finished. We now have Perdu Dans Paris which is for me the Tangent's crowning glory. We do finally get to relax on this one as the song opens ballad style onto a description of Paris - you guessed it - by night. And what a description. Listening to the words, it's like being there. It makes me want to go there now!!. I want to hop on the Eurostar and be there tonight in time to see "The white buildings sautee in the oil of the setting sun" and "The brasseries and sprawling pavement cafes casting lumiere onto the streets of Gay Paris" If the French Tourist board don't launch it as a manifesto for next year it will only be because of the underlying sinister edge, the fact that there are "two cities in this town" where homeless people rub shoulders on the same streets as the wealthy in the shadows of monuments that are famous across the world. A heartbreaking song in some respects, the middle instrumental break is worthy of Genesis at their best, full of joy, melancholy, sadness and amazement all at once. A twelve minute orgy of tune, imagery, terrific playing from all the band, a drop dead gorgeous guitar solo from Jakko, sublime sax interjections from Theo and just the most remarkable vocal performance from Tillison, equal in my opinion to that "The Streets Are lined with camera crews" in "Family Snapshot" on Gabriel Three. The keyboards are held back, there's loads of space, the drums sound amazing. What a song.

Taken into another song If "Perdu" was about down and out in Paris, this must be its London counterpart. The Company Car kicks off sounding for all the world like a track from Joni Mitchell's "Hejira" album, "Old Furry Sings The Blues", complete with that laconic de-tuned guitar strum and very Pastorius inspired bass playing from the by now very convincing and surprising Jonathan Barratt. Where Mitchell is looking at the decline in the fortunes of Beal Street (home of the blues in Memphis Tenessee) at the death bed side of one of the blues legends, Tillison is on the streets of our capital looking at the plight of kids with nothing much to do, families whose only ride in a "company car" will be the car that takes them to the cemetery. Grim stuff. But I'm Grim Tim after all, so it suits me. Sometimes it's the Tangent's moves from one set of inspirations to another that makes them what they are - for good and for bad. Here we get an example of both. The song builds up into a kind of Van Der Graaf frenzy (them again) which from a Joni Mitchell start point is somewhat unusual. It becomes quite punky. This really really works for me. What does not work however is the sudden dive into a piece of ELP almost straight swiped out of the title track "Trilogy" with swooping moogs and nice though that might have been somewhere else (like an ELP album for example) this just serves as a major distraction, totally out of context with the rest of the piece in tone, feeling and sentiment. In a great, poignant and subtle song this is entirely unwarranted. Sorry about that guys, wet fish time!

My edition of the album now has a bonus track. "Everyman's Forgotten Monday" of which I do have an earlier version on the Shelf album mentioned earlier. Bonus tracks normally come last, but this one doesn't. It's the penultimate track and it shouldn't have been. It's a nice little ditty that sounds very Pink Floyd influenced (indeed it's billed as a tribute to Richard Wright). While being pleasant in one respect, the lyrics are decidedly unpleasant in their subject matter (The Burma Crisis a couple of years ago) and also in their use of the English language. Ten or more uses of the word "F***" in a song are perhaps a bit excessive for anyone, let alone a progressive rock band. I'm not a prude and I watch Tarantino movies with great pleasure. I know that what Tillison wants to do is shock people about the situation, but the use of that word no longer shocks and I think, indeed I know he could have chosen better. I'll probably burn myself a CD with this bonus track left out.

And then we have "Ethanol Hat Nail" or the "Canterbury Sequence part 2". Fans of the band are doubtless familiar with the Tangent's penchant for occasionally recreating the "Canterbury Scene" sound of bands like Caravan, Hatfield and The North, Egg and of course National Health. Withe the latter in mind, look at the words "Ethanol Hat Nail" closely! The original Canterbury Sequence was a favourite track from the first album by Tangent, and the other songs in this style have included the "Lost In London" series. I have loved all of them and this one is no exception - in fact, I love it even more than the others. This one really does explore some of the wacky insanity that the bands mentioned before could dole out along with fairly cheerful empty headed lyrics and pleasant tunes. This time there's more traces of the Soft Machine and Henry Cow in the melee, (Theo Travis plays for the Soft Machine too as well as other Canterbury band Gong and traces of Hillage-ness can be found here too.) Try working out where the beats are going to come down in the mad Marimba led opening complete with smashing glass a la Gentle Giant. This is 14 minutes of crazy and fun stuff that delights, entertains and positively sparkles with ideas and references. I genuinely could not have asked for more. I suppose this track might be a real bore for those not into Canterbury stuff, but for me it's difficult to understand how anyone could not anyway!

All in all the negative things I have had to say are about a bonus track and a couple of bits I think we (and they) would have been better without. On the whole though, I think this album represents to me the perfect summing up of all the Tangent stand for and have done. I would be happy now to say it's my favourite of all their albums, yet I don't think they have quite hit the heights of the original "In Earnest" this time. The Tangent have always had a free thinking spirit which I must say I far prefer to the thinly disguised Evangelical dogma of Transatlantic's otherwise terrific album "The Whirlwind". Tillison is almost at pains to declare his lack of religious faith in that first song "Like when people find God, that's a claim I can't boast" and I wonder if he had anticipated the Transatlantic's lyrical bias. Once again the Tangent prove that you can make progressive rock music that has soul and feeling, real emotion as well as blind people with your skill. There are precious few left who can do this. I will look forward to their next and hope (probably once again forlornly) that they can actually stay together to work out the talents they have already manifested here. Certainly totally different from the much more aggressive album by Tillison's other band PO90 which arrived at the same time. I would like to review that too but will not be able to until my eldest son gives it back. (There's a sign) A great album, and for me the high point of 2009 in prog. Not for everyone perhaps, but for me.

Grim Tim December 2009

grimtim | 5/5 |

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