Round Table Review
Jethro Tull — The Zealot Gene
Will the release of The Zealot Gene present an opportunity for Jethro Tull to make a triumphant return after more than eighteen years since their last album release of new material? Or will a combination of the absence of Martin Barre, Anderson's ageing vocals and his recent penchant for loquacious lyrics, prove to be a persistent shadow, lurking in the dark?
I once had a time for everything related to Jethro Tull. For many years, Ian Anderson and the various manifestations of Tull were my favourite band. Those memory-bank-feelings faded ages ago, as the clasp of the band was set aside by the strange avenues and dark ages of my dog-eared years.
Anderson once sung that there is 'A Time For Everything', so perhaps it's time to reassess my feelings about Tull.
A quick visit to the loft to find those forgotten mementos. The uncomfortable stretching and wearing of my soil-stained, stitch-strained Roots To Branches t-shirt is completed. The donning of a faded Rubbing Elbows 2002 tour cap is accomplished. The scene is set for a thorough analysis of Anderson's latest work with Jethro Tull.
As I experience the album and the constricting effects of the tee shirt, several questions waft into my thoughts. These help me consider, whether The Zealot Gene has a sweet-smelling allure, or if it emits a far less appealing aroma.
Does the album contain a range of stylistic traits frequently associated with Tull? Do the guitar and flute parts complement each other?
Has Anderson lost his ability to create intricate tunes? Is the song-writing and performance of the band hackneyed and tired?
Over the years Ian Anderson has demonstrated a proven ability to draw upon a wide range of influences, including rock and folk, to create a style that is unique, is easily recognisable and is usually associated with Jethro Tull. Anderson has melded this identifiable sound in many inventive ways, to embellish his gifted ability as a writer of challenging, yet accessible melodic songs.
Anderson's most recent compositions in Homo Erraticus, and more notably the unreleased tunes that were a feature of the UK Rock Opera tour in 2015, pale in comparison to his skill as a song-writer and arranger that is displayed in the majority of Tull's extensive back catalogue as well as in solo albums such as The Secret Language of Birds released in 2000. Whilst some tunes such as A Change of Horses stood out in Anderson's TAAB 2 release. The Secret Language Of Birds (SLOB) arguably marked the last occasion that Anderson consistently showed the full extent of his song-writing abilities.
Whilst nothing on the Zealot Gene matches the inventive tunefulness of SLOB, there are numerous occasions when it almost does. It is clear on the evidence of this release that Anderson has had somewhat of a creative re-awakening.
The Zealot Gene contains an interesting amalgam of styles that will probably please and frustrate Tull fans in equal measures. Any Tull aficionado expecting a consistent, plate-shattering hard rock experience will be somewhat disappointed. Any Tull fans who want a re-tread of the progressive complexity of a Passion Play might feel a bit underwhelmed.
However, Tull fans who enjoyed the light and shade of albums such as Minstrel In the Gallery and Aqualung, or the melodic beauty of SLOB, might appreciate the way in which The Zealot Gene explores the gentler side of Anderson's compositions. If you like prog that is full of melody, but on occasions also mixes that approach with the bite and grip of a rock act, you will probably enjoy much here.
The album is made up of twelve compositions. Five of the pieces have an earthy, acoustic feel and were recorded by Anderson in his home studio, after the pandemic made further group recordings impossible. These tracks were completed by band members sending in their parts. In addition to these pieces that are reminiscent of the splendour of SLOB, this new release contains several inventive compositions that steam, simmer and spit in a bubbling mix of gusty flute, expressive keyboards and yowling guitar fills.
Shoshana Sleeping has many of the ingredients that fans of Benefit or Stand Up might admire. The flute riff is spiteful and insistent, and the whole song has a relentless, heavy, chest-wobbling energy. It could possibly benefit from a tad more variation. Similarly, the middle 8 section of the tune could perhaps be more inventive and could be developed further. Nevertheless, within the context of the album, this piece is perfectly placed and sounds much more impressive than it did when it appeared as promotional single for the release.
Shoshana Sleeping and the six other harder-edged tracks were recorded live in the studio prior to the March 2020 lockdown in the UK. On these occasions, the band consistently excel. Back-lit memories of the past abound, with hints of a one-legged stance and a wide-eyed gurn. Many of these tunes have subtle shifts of tempo, and instrumental passages and embellishments that display the hallmarks of breathy flute and crunchy guitar riffs associated with the classic Tull sound.
In this respect, whilst never achieving the peaks or perhaps even the foothills of the best-regarded Tull albums, The Zealot Gene offers something appealing, that fans from a wide variety of Tull eras might value and enjoy. It is by turns quirky, charming, and endearingly idiosyncratic.
The album is lyrically astute and the songs explore some of the strong human emotions that can be found in biblical stories. The biblical passages that inspired each of the tunes are in the lyric section of the release. For example, the excellent and unusual Mine Is the Mountain was motivated by the story of Moses on Mt Sinai.
Anderson's vocals are surprisingly strong, although some listeners might find that his now-limited vocal range ensures that some of the vocal parts have a similar tonal quality. Despite this, Anderson delivers the thoughtful lyrics with lots of emotion and considerable aplomb.
Several techniques are used to give the vocals an extra dimension. For example, a few of the vocals are double-tracked, whispered effects are used to good effect, phrases are repeated and chanted. There is even a falsetto chorus on Mine is the Mountain that adds another set of tones. This surprising addition creates an ethereal atmosphere that counters Andersons' slow, expressive phrasing and deep-voiced gravitas. It works surprisingly well in the context of the tune.
The fragility of Anderson's weakened voice provides the music with a worldly vulnerability that is altogether quite endearing. However, several of the tunes arguably contain his best vocal work for many years. It is notable that the most successful vocal performances occur on the quieter pieces, when his voice had been rested and touring was no longer an option.
His voice is particularly melodic and expressive in the magnificent trilogy of songs that begin with the poignant Where Did Saturday Go and ends with the enchanting In Brief Visitation. This is without doubt, my favourite section of the album. This outstanding trio of tunes have much in common with the type of style and approach found in SLOB.
Each of the five gentler, or acoustic-based tunes have significant features that indicate that Anderson's ability as a song smith have not diminished over the years. Three Loves, Three is an emotive and stunning song, with an equally evocative message. The way in which it beautifully segues into the heartfelt In Brief Visitation is simply gorgeous.
There is no doubt that the acoustic-flavoured tunes possess an enviable freshness and provide some of the album's stand-out moments. However, their true worth becomes apparent when they are juxtaposed against the other more forceful compositions.
This feeling is reinforced by the range of instruments used in the gentler pieces. The harmonica makes a welcome return in Jacob's Tales. Mandolin, accordion and whistle are used to terrific effect in Sad City Sisters. The contrast that this offers, provides a splendid balance between placidity and aggression, and ensures that there is a great deal of variation throughout the release.
Anderson's flute flurries are superlative. His phrasing and the primeval intensity is captivating. Although numerous flute passages have the pureness of tone associated with players such as Herbie Mann, there are many occasions where Anderson blows his flute with a snarl, and exhibits a snorting primeval intensity. He is on fire, and the flute work is molten.
An example of some of the most exciting flute-trilling occurs during the interchange between Opahle and Anderson in the unusually structured and enigmatic Barren Beth, Wild Desert John. The flute breaks that occur during the swinging instrumental passages of The Betrayal of Joshua Kynde are equally stirring. In this piece, Opahle demonstrates his wide range of skills. His fluent guitar solo and tasteful embellishments show just what a capable player he is.
Mine is the Mountain contains some of the stand-out instrumental sections of the album. John O Hara's measured piano introduction provides a perfect entry point for Anderson's haunting flute line. However, at the mid-point of the tune, the group have an opportunity to stretch out. This exciting passage ends all too soon, but the band interplay is quite brilliant. I was left with a feeling of open-mouthed awe, which positively saturated any negative preconceptions I may have had about the continued relevance of Jethro Tull in 2022.
As the album ends, its captured moments swell my senses and resist any sensory fade to grey! The walls burp, twitch and creak with a cheeky salute. Hushed silence descends and plays out a fond, temporary farewell.
So is The Zealot Gene a keeper?
It's simply damn good! In fact, it's a triumphant return!
Quite why Ian Anderson has decided to resurrect the Jethro Tull band name some 22 years after the last proper studio album, J-Tull Dot Com, is neither here nor there (Thick As A Brick 2 is deemed as a solo album, as implied by the credit of Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson). If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck!
There is no denying that The Zealot Gene sounds as one would expect a Tull album to sound. There are acoustic numbers, electric numbers, quirky time signatures, thought-provoking lyrics, and even some discrete musical phrases that hint at former glories. And Anderson himself keeps things musically varied by adding plenty of flute, mandolin, Irish whistle and harmonica. So it certainly walks like a duck, even if the duration of the walks are rather less lengthy than in the past.
However, the 'quacking' is probably an apt word for Anderson's voice these days, particularly in the live arena. Whereas, once there were the vocal dips and dives of a songbird, these days there are only distant echoes of that classic voice. Anderson is largely walking his way through the songs; more speaking than singing, meaning that everything is basically in the same register.
Of course, it would be foolish to think that the 74-year-old Anderson would have the same range as when he was 40-50 years younger (although the 81-year-old Tom Jones manages to still knock his singing out of the park), and a diagnosis of the respiratory condition, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can't help matters. The truth of the matter is that Anderson's vocals are shot and his only way to get the lyrics across is in the rather one-dimensional speaking manner.
Unfortunately, this is to the detriment of the album, as, to me, it rather diminishes the musical qualities of the pieces. The band, most of whom have been playing with Anderson for over ten years, are uniformly excellent and all credit to David Goodier (bass), John O'Hara (keyboards), Florian Opahle (guitar) and Scott Hammond (drums) for capturing the essence of the band in its heyday.
Credit also to Anderson himself for digging deep and writing these songs in a manner that does justice to the band's history, without falling into pastiche or retreading old ground. I will leave it to my esteemed colleagues to provide more in-depth analysis of the songs, it is enough for me to say that musically, the material on The Zealot Gene is the strongest to come from Anderson's pen in nigh on 30 years. Will I buy a copy on the release date, to replace the digital review files? Almost certainly. Will I play the album with any degree of regularity? Almost certainly not (unless an instrumental version suddenly appears).
Oh, and as the album sees the resurrection of 'the band', it would have been nice to pay tribute to the group by having a cover that acknowledges this, rather than the frankly horrid monochrome portrait that graces the release.
Jethro Tull are one of the world's most successful progressive rock bands. In existence for more than half a century, with sales of 50 million albums, 21 studio albums, 36 members, 3 or 4 genres and finally 11 gold and 5 platinum records. They release their 22nd studio album, The Zealot Gene on the 28th of January 2022.
Leaving aside The Jethro Tull Christmas Album from 2003, it is more than 22 years since they have released any new material. They have continued to be a formidable live act performing and selling out venues all over the world.
The band, led by the eccentric Ian Anderson who is originally from Scotland, moved to Blackpool in the early 60s and set up as a three-piece band. By 1967 they were established as Jethro Tull. Mick Abrahams left the band in 1968 and set up Blodwyn Pig. Among those that auditioned as the new guitarist were Dave O'List from The Nice, Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath and Mick Taylor. The final choice was Martin Barre who joined and played his first gig in 1968, and remained a member until 2011.
On realising he would only ever be a mediocre guitarist, Anderson took up the flute, and is often credited with introducing it to rock music. He has said that at the start, he was still learning the flute while gigging. Described as an unorthodox frontman, on stage he wore a scruffy great coat, tights and often stood one-legged playing the flute.
JT started life as a blues band, moved into a progressive rock phase from Aqualung in 1971, to Too Old to Rock'n'Roll: Too Young to Die! in 1976. The move to folk-rock commenced with Songs from the Wood in 1977. The electronic era commenced in 1980 with the album A which wasn't well received. The release of Crest of a Knave in 1987 marked a turn to harder rock, winning a Grammy in 1989, much to the chagrin of Metallica! Releases became less frequent, culminating with J-Tull Dot Com in 1999 and The Jethro Tull Christmas Album in 2003.
The Zealot Gene has been four years in the making. It has an unmistakably Jethro Tull sound, in which flute and mandolins continue to play a central part in the musical arrangements. Lyrically-deep, Anderson catches the emotional extremes that exist in different walks of life, for example, in social media. For The Zealot Gene the 1611 King James Bible is the focus, with the selection of emotional extremes that exist within it, for example, jealousy (Jacob's Tales), good and evil (Mrs Tibbetts), and positives like love (Three loves, Three). These extremes form the backbone of The Zealot Gene.
The first of the 12 tracks recorded was Mrs Tibbets in reference to Enola Gay Tibbets, the mother of the pilot of the infamous aircraft (named the Enola Gay) that was the first to drop an atomic bomb in war over Hiroshima, Japan. This is contrasted with eating Eccles cake. The song swings between good and evil with Lot's wife looking back to Sodom and being turned into a pillar of salt. “What if, what if, Enola Gay, August morning silence breaks”, referencing Hiroshima.
Jacob's Tales was the last track to be recorded. It is a reference to Jacob and Esau and the jealousy that exists in families. It is a short, acoustic track.
Pro-God and anti-religion, Mine is the Mountain contrasts 51 years later with My God from Aqualung where Anderson rants against organised religion with the line: “Made him bend to your religion”. He describes Moses climbing up Mount Sinai to an angry God to collect tablets of stone, while on earth the followers create “images silver and idols of gold”.
The title track, gets the full JT treatment. With a prominent electric guitar, this is the heaviest track on the album with a catchy melody. The words speaks for themselves: “The populist with dark appeal, the pandering to hate.”
Sad City Sisters rails at the abuse of alcohol, the decadence, promiscuity and behaviour change that can be observed on a night out. It should remind you of the JT's folk-rock era with mandolin, accordion and whistles.
On the politically incorrect, Barren Beth, Wild Dessert John, the words “Oh the joy!” refer to Elizabeth's conceiving late in life. “For with God nothing shall be impossible” is a reference to Luke 1:36.
Judas Iscariot features in The Betrayal of Joshua Kynde. The betrayal being the theme of this track, by Judas of Jesus Christ. “How does it feel to point the stabbing finger?”
Although there are 54 years between Jethro Tull's first album, This Was, and this newest effort, to me it feels like they have transcended time, maintaining the unique sound that they developed from the late 60s. Musically, it sits with the Heavy Horses folk rock trilogy of the late 70s. Lyrically, The Zealot Gene has a depth and a subject matter with a complexity that I have rarely encountered. It is a good album, though not an Aqualung, but definitely not at the back of the field.