Sunday, May 3, 2015

Album Review: The Tangent - A Spark In The Aether Volume Two

For all the talk about what progressive rock is or isn't, one thing is very clear; the majority of progressive rock bands stick fairly close to the original Yes/Genesis mold.  There's a very good reason fro this, since that is the sound that initially became popular, and it's the one that still leads to the greatest amount of success.  Unless you up the heaviness quotient enough to become a metal band, the retro prog sound is the one that will most readily get you noticed.  The Tangent are one of the many prog bands that was assembled form the parts of other prog bands, centered around Andy Tillison.  Originally carrying much of The Flower Kings in their personnel, the band has evolved as the albums have rolled along, although still retaining the upper-echelon players you would expect.

"A Spark In The Aether" is a conscious callback to the band's first album, which is a bit of a meta-reference, since that album itself was rather grounded in the prog of the 70s.  This time, we get an album that recalls an album that recalls the past.  If that's not enough to make your head hurt, it's also a bit of a concept record that runs over an hour, and contains a twenty minute epic.  Ah yes, the joys of prog.

The album kicks off with the title track, and a fuzzy synth line that instantly tells you what this album is going to be all about.  The main gist of the song is a bouncy bass-line, leading to an upbeat chorus, all of which is a great way to introduce the weightier pieces that will come later on.  Opening with a short burst of strong songwriting is a smart decision. 

The oddly titled "Codpieces & Capes" is the first of the extended compositions, one that directly addresses the excesses, and ridiculous nature, of much of the progressive rock bands of the 70s.  I can't quite decide if the song is nostalgic for those good ol' days, or if it's taking those bands to task for going so far over the top that they killed prog for everyone who came afterwards.  I think both arguments can be made.  As for the song, Tillison's synths dominate the mix, leaving no mistaking whose band The Tangent is.  But listening to the quieter moments of the song, it makes me wonder a bit about the production choices, because the synths distort in an unpleasant way as the volume increases.  It's a bit f unnecessary distraction in what is otherwise a fine multi-part epic. The second section, in particular, is a wonderful reflection of the sound The Flower Kings have been mining on their recent albums, and stands out as a highlight of the entire record.

Especially when contrasted with a song like "Aftereugene", an instrumental that's half acoustic guitar exercise, and half smokey jazz lounge interplay.  How the two connect isn't quite made clear.

"The Celluloid Road" is the album's centerpiece, a twenty minute rumination on the influence of American pop culture on the world.  I take it as unintentional irony that the message is being delivered through a style of music that was conceived in Europe, and for the most part only exists there anymore.  The song bobs and weaves as it moves through its sections, with a large amount of Neal Morse's instrumental feeling popping up in the seques.  It's a deft composition, and there's a lot to like, but the lyrics are too ham-fisted for their own good.  This kind of prog needs a more refined, more metaphoric message.  These words are so blunt that it takes away from the sophisticated playing going on underneath them.

But the real shame of the album is not just the lyrics, but how they're delivered.  Simply put, Andy Tilliman isn't a good enough vocalist to pull off what he's trying to do here.  His voice is fine in the quiet, soft moments, but he takes on a tone of a congested Morrissey when he pushes himself.  He never comports himself with the feeling of confident aplomb that the instrumentals carry.  If he recruited a better singer, or even someone like former member Roine Stolt, whose voice is fascinating in place of fantastic, this album had a world of potential.

"A Spark In The Aether" does indeed have a spark to it.  The songs that are written are some very good, engaging progressive rock in the vein of the classics.  Unfortunately, those really good songs are not presented to us in the best possible light.  From the vocals, to the slightly dour production, there are places where this could have been a far better album.  That being said, "A Spark In The Aether" is still a fine example of how to make modern progressive rock.  After all, it's not like those classics are perfect anyway (that's a debate for another time).

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