I imagine that something slippery and difficult to nail down is an apt description of Andy Tillison’s vision for The Tangent, a project that has had a perpetually evolving lineup since its inception in 2002. In fact, Tillison himself is the only member to have been on all the recordings and has written the majority of the band’s material over its 15 year history. The Slow Rust of Forgotten Machinery, the band’s 9th studio release, features the return of fellow Tangent founding member, bassist Jonas Reingold (The Flower Kings, Karmakanic), in addition to Theo Travis (sax, flutes), Luke Machin (guitars, vox), and Marie-Eve de Gaultier of Maschine (keys, vox). Tillison, an accomplished drummer of nearly three decades, utilized guest and session drummers on the previous eight Tangent studio releases, but this time chose to occupy the throne himself for Slow Rust’s percussion.
In an unpublished interview I did with Jonas regarding Karmakanic’s 2016 release, DOT, he audaciously (and affectionately) referred to Andy as “this punk from Northern England,” which has shaped my enduring impression of Tillison: an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, writer, composer, and thinker. Sadly, the last Tangent record I really locked into was 2011’s Comm, so I’ve been a little behind on the project, but Slow Rust – Tillison’s first release since his sudden heart attack, following the Tangent’s 2015 release, A Spark in the Aether – was a fantastic re-introduction to an act for which I’ve always had an affectionate ear.
The album’s packaging features stellar artwork from Marvel / DC Comics artist Mark Buckingham. The sleeve is conceptually based on the music it contains: a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a derailed train crumbling beneath the years, and a trio of figures – an adult and two children – treading the path of broken rails, perhaps recounting the story of mankind’s descent into destruction. The album’s alternate title, Where do we draw the line now?, is a question humanity must ask itself in the present, before the world becomes so devolved that it is forced to rebuild from such ashes as the album envisions.
Although Slow Rust deals in large political themes – Tillison specifically cites the current political climate of the UK as the album’s inspiration, focusing lyrically on refugee crises in war-torn regions and biased, obscure press coverage on the issue – the album does so with an intimate, personal focus on homes, individuals, and neighborhoods. While the album laments global divisiveness, from political affiliation to social classes to all “binary choices,” it does so by examining broken relationships and bitter memories, glimpsing the big picture through individual lives.
The reflective, balladic piano of “Two Rope Swings” renders the opening piece deeply nostalgic, looking back to childhood innocence while also acknowledging the destructive influences of adulthood downward on youth. This powerful composition employs some particularly gorgeous vocal arrangements, as well as nuanced guitar/synth orchestration. “Doctor Livingstone (I Presume)” – Slow Rust’s first epic-length and instrumental track – kicks off with rousing, interwoven synth and guitar leads in alternating 4/4 and 7/8. Reingold’s driving bass solidifies the up-tempo groove, then implements a strong counterpoint to a gentle piano insert. This track is reminiscent of material by The Flower Kings, or perhaps even Joe Satriani’s solo material, from its hugely orchestral moments to its dynamic variation to its guitar and synth leads in soaring balladic form.
Built on organs and plodding funk, Slow Rust’s title track stretches to nearly twenty-three minutes in length. The track’s enormous scope moves through several recurring movements: funk groove refrains, dirty 4/4 rock inserts, and an internal bridge with pastoral folk with Latin influence. The tracks concluding moments fade into ethereal swells of guitar and Moog. Another huge composition, “The Sad Story of Lead and Astatine” crosses the 16-minute threshold. Commencing as a piano ballad in varied meter with fretless bass accompaniment, the track moves into jazz feel and instrumentation, before a horns section in 5/4 and a rich guitar breakdown in free time. Restless bass lead brings back a brief 4/4 section reminiscent of Zappa orchestrations, flutes and glockenspiel accompanied by bass and guitars, before double-timing for synth and guitar solos – all around a central, recurring riff. “Lead and Astatine” also features Tillison’s first ever drum solo on a studio release, gorgeously accented by synth pads. Probably my overall favorite track on the album, this tune does so many cool things with vocal arrangements, bass compliments, and overall technical performance.
Clocking in at seventeen minutes, “A Few Steps Down the Wrong Road” seems to encapsulate many of the album’s larger themes into one composition. The song opens with string pads and flutes, providing a cinematic backdrop for Tillison’s spoken world storytelling, before exploding into uptempo guitars. I particularly enjoy the flute, saxophone, bass, and guitar interactions around the 4:00-minute-mark. The composition concludes much as it began: gently, reflectively. The album’s final tune, “Basildonxit,” feels all too brief after the monster tunes that precede it. Teasing a techno-pop beat at its intro, this punctuation mark ends Slow Rust with an atmospheric, instrumental groove that highlights every instrument in the band’s arsenal and brings the album to an uptempo conclusion.
The Tangent’s material has always been mature, but Slow Rust is a milemarker in the project’s writing development. Each piece is wonderfully crafted, with each instrument given specific articulation, so that the entire album feels orchestral – not in terms of a genre or instrumentation, but in terms of its structure. Tillison’s writing lends itself to versatility in dynamics, and also gives plenty of space to properly feature each instrument, never stepping on toes, and never forcing a new sound simply for the sake of being different. This is an album for investing both money and time: it grows and expands with each listen.