Reader, I beg your indulgence. This is a review that is, perhaps not entirely inappropriately, going to go off on a bit of a, ahem, tangent. Bear with me. Have you seen the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver? Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster etc. There’s a scene in that film that encapsulates the whole mood of the movie. No, not that bit that YOU’RE thinking about- the bit where de Niro as our protagonist, Travis Bickle, enquires of himself in the mirror: “Are you talking to me?”. No, I’m thinking of another bit – the opening scene in fact- where the Bernard Hermann music kicks into life, the drains kick out their smoke and the working day for our eponymous taxi driver begins. It is brilliantly hypnotic, evocative and sets the scene for the claustrophobic horror that will follow.
I was reminded of this scene as I listened to the seventh and latest album from The Tangent, the enigmatically titled “Le Sacre du Travail” . “Le Sacre du Travail” is not so much a concept album as it is audio novel or, to use the very words of the band, an “electric sinfonia”. “Le Sacre du Travail” (The Rite of Work) is, according to chief architect and muso in chief Andy Tillison, hugely influenced by Igor Stravinsky‘s “Rite of Spring”. It’s a musical journey narrated through five linked passages that examine the idiosyncrasies of a working day for a modern citizen, set very evidently in the wealthy west. It is a concept album and is hugely ambitious in the depth and breadth of its scope. To bring this vision to life, Tillison has gathered around him a veritable name dropping of who’s who in modern progressive music. Look: over there, there’s Porcupine Tree‘s Gavin Harrison on drums. Look, down there, there’s Jonas Reingold on bass and, if I’m not much mistaken, that’s Big Big Train‘s David Longdon isn’t it, adding a bit of harmony? Yes, yes it is.
So far, so very intriguing. As with Taxi Driver and its themes of routine work, loneliness in crowds and the eternal question around whether this life is pre-determined for us, so “Le Sacre du Travail” covers similar ground. The album deals with the mundane, the humdrum and the routine of the daily commute to work; the work itself; the journey home and the post work time at home: that strange “between work” time of television, the occasional nightcap and the inevitable sleep. Before we do it all again. To say that you will recognise some of these feelings, insights and observations is a serious understatement. This isn’t some sturm und drang bore-athon though. Far from it. If you like your prog music with a dash of invention and no little guile then this is a record for you. By way of example, there’s a sarcasm and irreverence in the ‘3rd movement: Afternoon Malaise’, mainly aimed at the popular DJ Steve Wright (the former Radio One version, not the narrator of the radio show in Tarantino‘s “Reservoir Dogs”) that will have you nodding your head in recognition and appreciation. Elsewhere, ‘5th Movement: Evening TV’ is a masterclass in progressive musicianship and its refrain of “put the kettle on- it’s time to relax” couldn’t be more apposite.
Throughout “Le Sacre Du Travail”, the music is inspired and delivered with a deftness and lightness of touch that will have you doffing your metaphoric cap in admiration. As an exercise in how one might go about creating a symphonic piece with modern instruments, “Le Sacre Du Travail” is a very interesting experiment although one could argue- perhaps harshly- that it sometimes constrains itself but being an out and out prog record, if you see what I mean. Which, once you’ve heard this, you hopefully will.
Lyrically, it’s not always successful. Some of the insights, whilst initially amusing, sometimes feel a bit clunky. Unless you are a UK citizen, you will not appreciate the cultural reference points so the universal themes of loneliness, boredom and ennui don’t always hit the mark as they should. Likewise, whilst there are echoes of Stravinsky, particularly in the structure of the piece, there are some pieces that are resolutely missing. Notably, in terms of musical dissonance, there is none of the atonality of Stravinsky‘s piece that caused such outrage. Let’s be honest, there won’t be any audience members rioting after hearing “Le Sacre du Travail”, as they did with the first airing of “Rite of Spring”. Likewise, the political content, so evident in Stravinsky and so manifestly threatening in “Rite of Spring”, gets distilled to a bit of a rant about eBay. I’m being harsh, though, and hypercritical.
There is a light, shade and diversity to the “Le Sacre du Travail” that reveals more and more of its riches with each subsequent listen. If this was a purely instrumental record, I’d want to see the film for which it is patently a soundtrack for. There are echoes of Hermann, Gershwin and Elfman in the deep well of musical brilliance that Tillison and his outstanding musicians have created here. Just take one listen to ‘4th Movement- A Voyage Through Rush Hour’ which is a simply superb musical evocation of one’s journey home from the office. Trust me, it is. “Le Sacre du Travail” is a bold, ambitious and complex work. For that alone we should be grateful. That it is, by turns, thrilling, exciting and packed to its prog gunnels with bucket-loads of ideas that you will love is a cause for celebration. “Le Sacre du Travail” is going to have a number of people salivating breathlessly about its brilliance and you know what? They will be right.