Released in September of 2012, "Off the Floor" is the first official live album from American rockers TILES. Hailing from Detroit, Michigan, this quartet have been creating and perfecting their self-described "progressive hard rock" style since 1993, and have previously recorded for US prog labels Magna Carta and InsideOut. Being born during the grungy heyday of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and anything else with a Seattle zip code, Tiles tricky time signatures, clear, tenor vocals and epic songcraft stood in stark contrast to the popular flavors of the day. But positive word-of-mouth in various prog publications, as well as an opening-act spot with Kansas, soon helped them to build-up an appreciative audience in the US. Likewise, a 1999 tour opening for Dream Theater brought them a wider exposure in front of European audiences.
I would love to say that I've followed this band from day one, but the truth is that I'd never actually heard any of their music until I found a copy of their 1997 CD "Fence the Clear" in a used CD shop about two years ago. I remembered hearing good things about Tiles from fellow prog fans, so I bought the CD on a whim, hoping for the best. After a few spins I found myself becoming a fan, and have since collected most of their other CDs.
As for sound & style, Tiles can seem pretty raw & hard-edged when compared to the more lush, symphonic, keyboard-driven bands on the current prog scene. In fact, their music is predominantly based around heavy-guitar, bass & drums, with synths used only minimally to fill out the 'wall of sound' or add the odd effect here and there. Of course, the band that Tiles has been most often compared (favorably) to is Rush. I can definitely see the reasons for those comparisons, but such overreaching "sounds like" labels rarely tell the whole story. Rush-influenced? Yes, I'll agree to that. A Rush clone? No! These four musicians have too many strengths and nuances of their own to be slagged off as clones. I think people have just grown too accustomed to generalizing in online music forums - "Magenta sounds like Yes". "I.Q. sounds like old Genesis". "Tiles sounds like Rush"....yeah, except that when you dig deeper you'll find so much more.
Now, to give a bit of recorded history, Tiles have thus far released five full-length studio albums - "Tiles" (1994), "Fence the Clear" (1997), "Presents of Mind" (1999), "Window Dressing" (2004) and "Fly Paper" (2008) - and it's those five albums, particularly "Fence the Clear" and "Fly Paper", that provide most of the 'set list' for this new live effort.
However, "Off the Floor" is not an ordinary live album. Don't expect any audience participation, screaming concertgoers or "I can't hear yous". Aside from being a clever play on the name Tiles, "Off the Floor" is actually a common recording-studio term. It literally means "capturing a song in one complete live take, without adding any overdubs or audio corrections afterwards". So, this is indeed a live album, but performed live in the controlled environment of a soundstage, with only a small (unheard) audience present to keep the band on their toes. The only other prog-rock example that comes to mind of this kind of recording is the intimate, candlelit soundstage DVD released many years back by Conspiracy (the Chris Squire/Billy Sherwood collaboration.) But Tiles performances here come off as more emotional and spontaneous than Conspiracy's did. In fact, though the liner notes warn of "a few 'jazz' notes, and even a false start", the songs sound so energetic that any such performance glitches become barely noticeable. Fans who know the band's music will notice that they also go a step beyond just re-creating the studio versions, adding in a few brief guitar/bass interludes, extended band jams and occasional arrangement 'modifications' (yeah, that was a pun just for Tiles fans, folks)
As for individual songs, there are several that stood out for me...
The raucous nine minute epic "Capture the Flag" nicely sums up what Tiles' is all about . It's a satisfying mixture of melody and muscle, aptly displaying the band's multi-faceted writing style and dexterous prog-rock chops - particularly those of the stellar rhythm section of Jeff Whittle (bass) and Mark Evans (drums). It also offers a great showcase for the clean, soaring vocals of Paul Rarick, who seems to have found an extra dose of power in these recordings .
"Dragons, Dreams & Daring Deeds" is another impressive slice of harder-edged prog- - blessed with a strong vocal melody and some beefy guitar hooks from Chris Herin. The guitar is also very much the star of "Hide In My Shadow", built around a monster opening riff that would make Alex Lifeson or Ian Chichton (Saga) proud. It also includes a very brief, unexpected turn into circus music - a "wtf" moment that only a prog fan could love!
On the slightly quieter side - the melodious & majestic "Changing the Guard" was an instant favorite when I first heard it on "Fence the Clear". But the version here is even more emotionally powerful, with the tempo slowed ever-so-slightly, as well as a guest violin spot from Matthew Parmenter of the prog band Discipline (also based out of Michigan).
But perhaps the most striking surprise is saved for last...In it's original 1997 studio version, "The Wading Pool" was recorded using only an acoustic guitar and Rarick's plaintive voice. It was sort of like Tiles' "Dust In the Wind" - a simple, stripped-down acoustic piece vastly different from the type of songs they're usually known for. Here, "The Wading Pool" is completely reborn with the addition of some gorgeous melodic bass from Whittle, a guest flute spot from Keith Kaminski of the Motor City Horns, and, best of all, a dose of wonderfully "scratchy" vintage Mellotron sounds (Matthew Parmenter again.) Rarick's vocals soar above it all, convincingly delivering the song's poignant lyrics. It's a beautiful re-imagining that raises the song to new heights...and makes you wonder why it wasn't recorded this way originally.
So, any criticisms?...Well, "Landscrape" seems like a strange choice to kick off the album. It's an opener so unrelentingly aggressive that first time listeners may think they've accidentally stumbled into a thrash metal album! This was my least favorite track from 2008's "Fly Paper, and I'm afraid that it holds that same distinction here. It seems to me that either "Dragons, Dreams And Daring Deeds" or "Token Pledge" would have made for a more inviting starting point. Those tracks are better representative of the "melody and muscle" approach that Tiles does so well, as well as being better showcases for Rarick's vocal range.
The CD was mixed by renowned producer Terry Brown (Rush, Gowan, IQ) and the sound quality is strong throughout - sounding particularly good through headphones. Packaging is in a triple fold-out cardboard sleeve, with liner notes by guitarist Chris Herin and cover art by Hugh Syme (Rush, Dream Theater, Queensryche) .
All in all, "Off the Floor" is a fine addition to the Tiles catalog, and serves as an unexpected gift to fans as we wait for the next studio album.
Reviewed by Jeff Matheus on December 13th, 2012