“HOLD ON!!! for a moment! The sky’s as blue as when I was young!
And I’ve as much right to play there as the young guys, beneath a billion-year-old sun
And I still have my fingers, and they still push the keys
‘Cuz everyone I know got older… at the same rate as me”
Recently in the New Yorker there was a piece called “The Persistence of Prog Rock” which explores the continuing fascination with genre, particularly that small pocket of about five years in the early 70’s which produced most of its popular work. For some the appeal of prog was that it was something more, a way to break free of conventional song structures and chord patterns and onto something that could one day be every bit as revered as Bach or Mozart. For others it was just the thrill of hearing guys play such technical music at a breakneck pace, the same way someone might get a kick out of watching someone speedrun an old NES game. But whatever it is, there’s no doubt the genre has persisted; the audience may be smaller and the money may have dried up decades ago, but there was something about that music which infected teenage brains and gave a select few a direction in life.
Andy Tillison was one such soul, and he’s got the 1973 ELP World Tour ticket stubs to prove it. Whatever your feelings are about revival prog and Tillison’s music in particular, he is the sort of guy you can’t help but root for, as he is someone who is willing to work twice as hard for half as much if it means he can live the dream of being a modern prog star. Even though his music career dates all the way back to 1987, his real breakthrough came with the formation of The Tangent, and their 2003 debut album The Music That Died Alone. The band was conceived as a supergroup combining members of The Flower Kings and Parallel or 90 Degrees, though I can’t imagine too many people knew who Parallel or 90 Degrees were. Thus the band was often referred to as a “Flower Kings offshoot”, even though it was Tillison, then the Po90 frontman, actually doing the lion’s share of the work, including writing pretty much everything. While Po90 were often quite adventurous and willing to mix in elements from other genres, The Music That Died Alone made a conscious decision to play like it was still 1972, even tabbing one of Tillison’s personal heroes in David Jackson for an appearance. Unsurprisingly, that this outsold everything Po90 did by some margin, to the point where it would be foolish to continue on after that name anymore.
And so what was originally a “one-off” project became a full-time career, as it often seems to go with bands like this. The Tangent moved on, replacing a few members here and there, with Head Flower King Roine Stolt dropping out after the second album, which I think freed Tillison up to really follow his muse, for better or worse. Not as Good as the Book is the band’s 4th album, and now the third time in a row in which a Tangent album was 15 minutes longer than its predecessor, the sort of fact that only a proghead could appreciate. Whereas their previous album A Place in the Queue was marketed as “a double album on CD”, this is a double album on 2 CDs, both of which have separate titles and could have been released on their own. The first one, subtitled A Crisis in Mid-life pretty much spells out the theme of the album, which reoccurs on most of the tracks; the feeling of being left behind, of wondering not only where your own youth went but rather the attitude of being young, as the would-be astronaut instead spends his time toiling away on spreadsheets. The metaphor of the mid-life crisis seems a bit pertinent here, not only to the album itself (95 minutes, who are you kidding?) but this entire genre as a whole. After all, for every visit down memory lane or lamentation that they just don’t do things like they used to, there’s the knowledge that most of the sounds you hear on this album were readily available 35 years ago. It is consciously stuck in the past.
Luckily this album ain’t just prog by the numbers; the first song (“A Crisis in Mid-life”, naturally) is the sort of arena rock floor-filler that would’ve played well to the stadiums Tillison might have been able to fill if he had started his career in the 70’s. Think Van Halen’s “Jump”, plus or minus 10%. Halfway through you even get to hear a canned drum loop that sounds like it was ripped straight off a Fatboy Slim album. They reign it in a bit after that, with a rather superb guitar solo from new member Jakko Jakszyk (who you may recognize from the current incarnation of King Crimson), perhaps a way to convince the old-school progheads not to shut the album off right there. In general the album seems a lot less tightly wound than the Tangent discs with Stolt on them; the playing is faster and they veer off into funk a lot more often than you’d expect. You can really hear the Po90 spirit start to creep back in. I mean, what is that, a little disco I hear in “Lost in London 25 Years Later”? Stevie Wonder-style clavier funk in “Four Egos, One War”? An F-bomb in “Bat Out of Basildon”? A little flamenco in the title track? Well, maybe that one’s just Tillison’s VdGG obsession – I’m pretty sure that little genre shift is a direct reference to “Sleepwalkers”. Then you’ve got “A Sale of Two Souls”, which sounds like a fairly deliberate attempt to ape Peter Hammill’s mid-70’s songwriting style. Quite successfully I might add.
Of course these sorts of things are usually diversions in the context of an 95-minute prog album, but this album does have a few other things going for it. For one the songwriting is quite good, consisting of the sort of things the band has done well in the past – “The Ethernet” is unexpectedly gorgeous the same way “Photosynthesis” was, “Four Egos” uses the same “epic-with-great-chorus” trick as “In Darkest Dreams”, and “Lost in London” dusts off the old Canterbury playbook. Secondly the band is excellent, as they always are, but the compositions seem to highlight this a bit more – the second half of “Lost in London” and the instrumental “Celebrity Puree” are the sort of exciting technical workouts everyone always says The Tangent should do more of, so there you go.
The real question: how do those epics on Disc 2 hold up? The first, “Four Egos, One War” is about (you guessed it) Iraq, originally composed for a Parallel or 90 Degrees album that wound up getting scrapped. For the most part you can tell – though the first half mostly goes through the motions (quiet intro, sudden organ rock bit, long guitar solo) at the 9-minute mark the tune morphs into some sort of funk jam which is pretty good fun. Plus it ends with in an unabashedly poppy way, which I think is actually a pretty neat thing for a prog epic to do (“In Darkest Dreams” did the same). Good stuff, though “The Final Gamut” seems a bit more significant, a harrowing and nakedly honest account of a break-up. I wonder if he would’ve wrote this had Hammill not released Over. Granted this is an uphill battle, since at this point you’re well over an hour in and probably have had your fill, but I guess on a track-by-track basis this is probably the best one. I mean, it’s either that or the title track, but in the world of prog the sidelong always wins out. Here Tillison goes the full-on symphonic route, bringing in some strings and whipping out all his ELP-style keyboards (I hear the sounds of Trilogy all over this one). Unlike “Four Egos” there’s no real consistent song structure; this is more of a traditional epic, split into nine fairly distinct bits. Granted it gets a bit tedious around section seven, because who wants to hear another brooding dramatic section at this point. But it does all come full circle fairly well and in the end there’s more good than bad. Which, come to think of it, would’ve been a fine subtitle for this album: Not as Good as the Book (but There’s More Good than Bad).
Still, when it comes down to it, albums like this are a hard sell – as good as they can be there’s always going to be that feeling that you’re listening to an imitation of something that Used To Be Great. Granted nobody seems to mind when more mainstream acts pillage the 80’s over and over again, but prog rock does seem to have that baggage with it, especially as the genre’s most common signifiers are so inexorably tied to that era, and often a particular musician. But Tillison can do it, and it must be said that age has not slowed him down the way it does to a lot of his heroes. His fingers still move, they still push the keys, and if you close your eyes it’s 1972 all over again.