By Rob Hughes
This album had me crying foul almost immediately. I mean, it’s fair enough for a progressive rock band to write a concept album about communication. However, it’s a bit rich for said prog rock band to use that concept to single out the Internet as the root of all evil, as The Tangent apparently does on “The Wiki Man,” COMM’s 20-minute opening track. I hate the Internet as much as anyone, but even I have to acknowledge the huge role that it played in the resurgence of progressive rock. If it weren’t for all those nerds on Usenet getting damp in the Dockers for the likes of Spock’s Beard (I was one of them), we wouldn’t have the thriving little scene we’re enjoying today. The Tangent probably wouldn’t exist, much less have the audience it does. My initial reaction to “The Wiki Man” was that The Tangent should be choosing their battles a little more wisely.
I’ve followed The Tangent since their charming, nostalgia-tinged debut The Music That Died Alone, so I wanted to give them a chance. My initial judgement, it turns out, was too hasty. “The Wiki Man” does drip with disgust for what the Internet has wrought. As one spoken interlude puts it, “…now we’re all encyclopedia correspondents, we’re all record companies, we’re all world-famous rock bands, and we’re running the biggest car boot sale in the history of the universe.” But beneath the song’s cranky surface is a valid point of debate. The refrain of “You can edit me out of my story” is the key to the song’s real purpose: pondering what it means to live in a world where there is no official record of anything; just millions of voices shouting over each other. Bandleader / keyboardist / vocalist Andy Tillison even includes himself in the mess: “If I think about it, I’m living a dream in the aether; not much more.” With that understanding in place (the video trailer for the album enlightened me as well), I was off and running with COMM.
The music is a mixture of the Canterbury sound (Caravan, Hatfield and the North) and Van der Graaf Generator; catchy, intense, sometimes playful, and always ready to dazzle with a flashy interlude or wicked solo. Much of this spirit comes from their new guitarist, 21-year-old Luke Machin, who shreds his way to glory on most of these songs. After guiding the project through several lineup changes, albums and DVDs, Andy Tillison, who’s been plugging away since the late ’70s, is clearly onto a good thing here. His vocals have an urgency that reminds me of Peter Hammill, and it’s obvious he wants his music to do more than just paint a pretty picture. This is prog as protest music—very English, somewhat crotchety, but staking out some important territory in this obscure but still vital genre.
The album brings the concept full circle with the final 16-minute track, “Titanic Calls Carpathia” wherein Tillison heralds the triumphs of communication as a means to save lives, first describing the rescue of 700 people from the Titanic, then moving on to the story of Apollo 13. Although the lyrics eventually return to the concerns expressed in “The Wiki Man,” lamenting that the latest advancements in communication are merely helping us talk ourselves to death, it’s still a beautiful, moving song.
This is what the Tangent does best: bringing stirring music and real-world ideas together. They’re working class heroes, in a way. Prog rock fans aren’t used to being confronted by such blunt lyrical statements, but that’s part of the challenge that this album threw at me. Once I got in tune with its approach, COMM became a rewarding listening experience.