Round Table Review
Jethro Tull — RökFlöte
One of last year's nicest surprises was the release of The Zealot Gene, the first Jethro Tull studio album in almost 20 years. As expected, the album was received with mixed feelings, also at dprp where my colleagues Owen Davies and Chris Rafferty thought it represented quite a glorious return-to-form by this legendary band, while Mark Hughes wasn't impressed at all.
I sincerely enjoyed the album, although it didn't really feel as a genuine band album. But hey, Mr. Anderson has always taken care of almost all music and lyrics during Tull's very long career (more than 55 years) and the circumstances during the covid-period weren't exactly favourable to record music as a band. The only downside of that album was the gruesome cover. If you ever feel so depressed that you want to end it all, never turn to that cover, for it will definitely throw you over the edge!
This spring sees another nice surprise in the form of yet another new Tull studio album entitled RökFlöte, just over a year after the former one. This time it is a thematic album, as all twelve songs are based upon pre-Christian folk stories dealing with gods and Norse paganism.
Religion was the theme of the 1971 classic Aqualung (no, that was not a concept album, Mr Anderson, we've understood that well) but those who expect to finally hear the successor album may be slightly disappointed. There is no ongoing story running through the songs, with each song telling its own short story about one of the many gods that are present in Nordic folk tales.
Anderson became aware of these tales when he explored the origins of his family name. Musically those stories hark back to the days of Tull's folk albums in the seventies (Songs From The Woods, Heavy Horses and Stormwatch). That trilogy belongs to my personal Tull favourites (alongside Thick As A Brick and Minstrel In The Gallery) so I found this new album very appealing. And more so than on The Zealot Gene, this one feels more as a real band release because of the more prominent role for the electric guitar and the keyboards.
Since their last album, the line-up of Jethro Tull has remained the same. Besides Ian Anderson on vocals, flute, acoustic guitar and harmonica, the band consists nowadays of Scott Hammond on drums, John O'Hara on keyboards, David Goodier on bass, and Joe Parrish-James on guitar. Yet it wasn't meant to become a band release, as the excellent information sent with the promo files explains (InsideOut Music has done a great job here, paying huge respect to this legendary band).
The tunes were originally meant to be released as an instrumental album on which the flute would be the leading instrument. But while delving into his ancestors' history Anderson came across so many interesting folk tales of Norse paganism that proved perfect for song lyrics, so he decided to change course and make it a genuine band album. There also lies the explanation behind the intriguing album title, RökFlöte. The "rök" part means destiny or direction, and is the same as in "ragnarök". "Flute" became "flöte" to keep the spelling.
Compared to its predecessor, the songs are slightly heavier, lacking the uplifting general mood that characterised the former album. That becomes immediately apparent in the opening minutes, when Icelandic actress, singer and violinist Unnur Birna reads out some old and therefore completely incomprehensible Nordic lyrics in a rather dark manner. The band breaks loose thereafter, over Anderson's speaking way of singing. Immediately the flute plays an easily recognisable and addictive Tull-motif, a feature that will stay throughout the entire album.
The album is far from dark though, mainly because the flute is very present in each song. Musical support is mainly supplied by electric guitar riffs, with occasional short solos. The keyboards are mostly in the background, except in the orchestral ballad The Feathered Consort. Apart from the opening song, Anderson really sings in all songs, and while his voice has indeed deteriorated somewhat over time and has lost considerable strength, the vocals are more-than-acceptable. Birna returns in closer Ithavoll to read some more old lyrics, thus rounding-off the album nicely. As a bonus an edited version of The Navigators is added.
To my ears there are no really stand-out songs but there are no fillers either. Most songs have some sort of original musical ingredient, be it in the form of the aforementioned old Norse language (Voluspo, Ithavoll), an unexpected end (Allfather, Hammer On Hammer), natural wolf crying (Wolf Unchained) or clock (?) mimicking (Ithavoll), illustrating the period of creativity that Anderson is experiencing nowadays. Songs of epic lengths are absent, which is too bad as Tull's epic songs have always ranked among their most loved ones.
Although RökFlöte may not be very innovative or surprising, it is a very pleasant album to listen to, providing the fans of (early) Tull with another three quarters of an hour of excellent high quality music. Will it win them new fans? Probably not, as the music is so typically Tull. With his more than 55 years in the musical business I guess Anderson just wants to do what he likes to do and thus won't bother at all.
This new album is another good example of his still-present talent for composing appealing melodies, playing beautiful flute themes, stimulating fine rock outbursts and writing witty lyrics. I can only conclude that this attractive album is welcome addition to the already extensive and impressive Jethro Tull discography. And the album cover is an enormous step forward!
What do they want? What do they really, really want?
Ian Anderson has often asserted that folks "don't want a new Jethro Tull album, they want a new old Jethro Tull album."
A quick trawl across the various Tull fan forums to find out what the hopes and expectations are for RökFlöte, suggests that Anderson's assertion is probably correct.
Several fans have written that they want lots of musical hints to past albums and wish to hear references to the styles of Songs From The Wood, Roots To Branches and Aqualung. Others have asked for big electric hooks, followed by and mixed with interesting chord progressions and clever lyrics.
So, what are the highs and lows of RökFlöte, and will it be considered a winner, or a loser, by the band's supporters?
On the evidence of its compositions, Jethro Tull have created a success that many Tullsters will adore. The album contains numerous aspects that comfortably fit the "new old Jethro Tull album" moniker. In this respect, it ticks many of the accepted boxes and will probably exceed expectations.
For example, the guitar is high in the mix. There are musical references to specific passages from past Tull albums and allusions to the styles of previous Tull releases.
The band's performance is fresh and uninhibited. Anderson's flute playing is impeccable. There are frequent occasions when the fearsome interplay between flute and guitar is simply magnificent. This release regularly contains outstanding instrumental passages. The tunes are melodic and lyrically astute. Although the album regularly vibrates the chest and rocks the senses, there are still many interesting changes in pace and direction.
Overall, RökFlöte is an album that has several exceptional characteristics. On the occasions, when it is not exceptional, it is satisfyingly-good, and very rarely bad. However, some minor aspects of the album might be perceived as slightly ugly, or uninviting.
There is no denying Anderson's ability to create inspired flute-led melodies. There are many instances when the plethora of prominent flute motifs, riffs, delicate passages and breathy, over-blown phrases are simply outstanding.
There is no refuting Anderson's proven penchant to fashion memorable songs, that have enticing hooks, unexpected changes of direction and innovative instrumental flourishes. Indeed, on the evidence of RökFlöte, Anderson's undoubted skill as a songsmith has not significantly deteriorated with the passing of the years. The best tunes on the album include All Father, The Feathered Consort, Hammer on Hammer, The Perfect One and Cornucopia.
All Father is stylistically reminiscent of several Ian Anderson/ Tull compositions, including the rhythmic feel of Two Short Planks and some elements of the vocal delivery of Enter the Uninvited.
It's probably my favourite tune on the album. I adore its clever emphasis of the term "afterglow". I also like how the piece develops and travels towards its unexpected and abrupt ending.
The Feathered Consort references a few of the subtleties of Anderson's songwriting that are in evidence in his Secret Language of Birds release. It also offers various dynamic hints and attributes that at a stretch could be tenuously connected to Tull's Song from the Wood era.
More noticeably, The Feathered Consort also contains identifiable rhythmic flurries and characteristics that are usually associated with a part of the second side of Thick as a Brick. Incidentally, this satisfying nod to TAAB is also reprised in the end-stages of The Guardians Watch; a tune which incidentally also revisits some of the rhythmic textures of The Perfect One.
When the vocals emerge in The Perfect One, the band create a sort of melodic shape that is often associated with the style of Brett Anderson and Suede. This comparison is probably questionable, but The Perfect One incorporates many diverse stylistic features. These ensure it is a thoroughly rewarding experience.
The Perfect One and Cornucopia are probably the prettiest tunes on the album. They certainly provide the album with a different set of colours. The Perfect One journeys gently through sun-shadowed passages and rolls and shifts with purpose in heavier flute-splashed squalls.
RökFlöte is probably the most convincing that Jethro Tull have sounded as a collective since their Roots to Branches release. The band's lively and outstanding performance outweighs anything from the Dot Com era, or from Ian Anderson's TAAB2 and Homo Erraticus releases. There is a vigour, excitement and sparkle to the band's performance that has arguably been missing for years.
The combination of Joe Parrish-James' upfront guitar tones, with Anderson's virtuoso flute performance works fabulously. Whether by accident or most likely by design, there are many junctures when Parrish-James adopts a style and a muscular tone that Martin Barre might have utilised, had he been involved.
Parrish-James' outstanding and prominent contribution to the overall mood of the album is a significant reason why RökFlöte might be positively received by that section of Tull aficionados who lamented the departure of Barre.
The Satisfyingly Good
RökFlöte is well recorded and the rhythm section is much more noticeable in this release than they were in The Zealot Gene. Then, Scott Hammond's drums felt quite suppressed in the mix. David Goodier's bass lines also have more prominence in RökFlöte and his accomplished performance enhances tunes such as Hammer on Hammer.
RökFlöte contains no acoustic tunes. Indeed, Anderson very rarely plays acoustic guitar in concert these days, and the few acoustic guitar parts on the album are credited to Parrish-James. It might be assumed that an absence of the short acoustic tunes that Anderson is renowned for, would have a noticeable detrimental effect on the success of the album. That it does not, says something about the sequencing of the tunes and the quality of the all-out rockers such as Wolf Unchained and The Navigators.
Both tunes have a relatively straight-forward hard-rock style, that on a cursory listen comes across as much too simplistic to have been composed by Anderson. However, as might be expected, both tunes do not stick to a predetermined hard-rock script. In this sense they exude the essence of what Jethro Tull are all about; creative melodies, unusual progressions and fine instrumental embellishments.
The Navigators begins in an upbeat fashion and has a biting flute riff that gives it a similar sort of snarling appeal as Roots to Branches' Dangerous Veils. The Navigators stridently exhibits power flute blowing, in an exciting display of metallic, silver-tubed virtuosity. For good measure, its concluding section satisfyingly channels some of the mysterious Eastern vibes that were prominent in Roots.
Both Wolf Unchained and The Navigators offer a chain of excellent opportunities for the group to stretch out in a succession of satisfying, gilt-edged instrumental breaks. Despite the success of these leather-stained rockers and the overall appeal of the many flute and guitar interactions, I certainly missed the changes in pace and earnest appeal that the delightful acoustic numbers offered in The Zealot Gene.
However, despite RökFlöte generally being a much harder-edged album, melody is never sacrificed, or replaced by brash aggression. For example, the gently evolving Cornucopia is forged and sculpted by an enchanting flute line. This recurs, floats and flutters elegantly, to highlight the tune's appealing initial melody. For some reason, its eloquent nature and reflective ambience recalled some of the beauty of Stand Up's Reasons For Waiting.
The Rarely Bad
Although, the Trickster (And The Mistletoe) can hardly be called a bad track, its flute-rock leanings and somewhat constrained vocal melody are somewhat unconvincing. Its inclusion on the album seemed a tad forced. However, it certainly shows an evolution of a style that Anderson has used many previous times. This piece exhibits many superb and inspiring instrumental passages and many Tull fans will no doubt enjoy it.
Similarly, the opening and concluding tunes, Voluspol and Ithavoll, are not entirely satisfactory. There were a few factors at play, but the heavy riff that huffs, chugs and puffs to connect both tunes was somewhat predictable.
The Slightly Ugly
Whilst the first and last tracks do little to tingle the toes, some aspects of these tunes are just disagreeable. Both tunes feature spoken vocal sections recited in old Icelandic by Unnur Birna. At first, they were atmospheric and interesting, but after a while, they have a propensity to scrape upon the bones.
Voluspol also features Anderson's spoken vocals. Although they do not make this piece nearly as irritating as Homo Erraticus' Per Errationes Ad Astra, the spoken parts of Voluspol undoubtedly distract from the musical development which occurs.
There are also several effects that become rather unattractive after numerous plays. The heavy-breathing which begins and ends the album, does little to create a feeling of mystery. Similarly, the wolf effects which start and conclude Wolf Unchained are simply unnecessary.
So will Tull fans get what they want, what they really really want?
Overall, RökFlöte can be placed in the middle ranks of Jethro Tull and Anderson's thirty studio album discography. This assessment probably reflects RökFlöte's exceptional and slightly unappealing facets and all points in between. Yet, this album's overall excellence outweighs any negligible reservations that might arise. The fact that it succeeds on so many different levels and in so many appealing ways, is probably much more than any Tullster could reasonably expect in 2023.
Apparently, Jethro Tull are currently working on another studio album due to be released in October 2024.
I expect Tull fans will already be compiling yet another wish list! I know I am!
"Hey Ian, pass me that paper in a bottle please!"
Jethro Tull return with a new album close on the heels of the well received The Zealot Gene. Entitled RökFlöte, it will be their 23rd studio release, and with an uncharacteristically short duration of one year between both releases.
The Zealot Gene which was their first studio album in 20 years, took four years to complete. In contrast, this time Tull were able to combine touring, composing and recording in one year. Ian Anderson is also carrying a respiratory illness which he says is incurable, and at 75 he is not getting any younger. I get a sense from a recent interview that he feels there is an urgency with regard to concluding a few things.
The line-up's only change is Joe Parrish-James (electric and acoustic guitars, mandolinis) who is now the 29th permanent member of Jethro Tull.
The album contains 12 tracks, from which two singles have been released, Ginnungagap and The Navigators. Each track is based on the roles and characteristics of Gods in ancient Norse. If you think The Zealot Gene was deep, the new album takes the listener to greater depth and complexity.
Musically, RökFlöte is excellent. The production and melody are likewise. Lyrically, the album is immersed in Norse mythology and because of this, it makes for a challenging listen. Challenging in that the number of Gods that exist and the roles that they play as superhumans. For example Odin was the most magically powerful God, whilst Thor the God of thunder is honourable, loyal and a defender of Aesir Gods and their fortress.
I hope I haven't lost you already!
A bit of background: Prior to the 8th century the Norse expanded, colonising Iceland, Western Europe and Britain among others. The Norse, also known as Vikings, were seafaring people and sailed far east and west raiding and plundering land and wealth. The dominance of the Vikings saw the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 as the turning point.
Christianity started to successfully defend itself and engaged the Norse. This started the decline of the old Norse religion, signalling the end of the Viking raids on communities. This was achieved by learning how to defend themselves, additionally the spread of Christianity in Europe helped Christians to defend themselves.
Ragnarök describes the end of the world of Gods and men. This is explained by the first track. The Icelandic poem Voluspa written in the 13th century, is the excerpt in track 1. It is the best known poem of the poet Edda which contains the body and myths of Norse mythology. The poem is extensive, and it is read by Icelandic actress Unnur Birna. Ragnarök means “the Doom of the Gods” destroyed by giants and demons. Ragnarök foretells the death of great figures and natural disasters.
The complexity of the lyrics on RökFlöte has to be admired. All the verses are written in the form of lyric poems conforming to tetrameter in describing the different Gods and their roles. For those who skipped English class or who were just not listening, this is basically the rhyme and rhythm that exists throughout the lyrics.
The first single from RökFlöte is Ginnungagap, which was there prior to creation of the cosmos, similarities exist between it and the Christian Bible's first chapter of Genesis; “the earth without form and void” is common to the story of Adam and Eve and of Ginnungagap. According to Norse mythology, the beginning of the universe started from Ginnungagap. This is not a place, but more of a dark void.
“From sleeping Ymir, a world to make”. Ymir asexually conceived many Gods including Odin, Boor and Bestlas. With their desire to create a more orderly world, the three brothers killed Ymir. By combining their powers, they managed to slay him and used the remains of his body to create the world.
The second single, The Navigator is a catchy tune exploring the Norse God Njord who is the God of sea and sea-faring. Njord “protects and nurtures navigators, raiders bold who loot and plunder”. Described as “stunning”, an animated video, created by Costin Chioreanu, has been released to accompany the single.
It took me some time to start to appreciate this new album. Initially I found it difficult to get into it, probably because of the difficulty in understanding the Norse roles and the myriad of Gods and Goddesses. There is a lot to admire in RökFlöte, particularly the lyrics, and Ian Anderson's flute playing is second to none. All in all, this is a very accomplished album. Let's hope Ian can cope with his illness and continue to gig and record.
RökFlöte is available in several different formats, including two limited deluxe formats that include bonus demo material, extensive liner notes and a Blu-ray featuring Dolby Atmos, 5.1 surround sound, alternative stereo mixes by Bruce Soord (The Pineapple Thief), as well as a bonus track and in-depth interview with Ian Anderson. The album will also be available digitally in the spatial audio formats Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 RA. The full list of formats is as follows: Ltd Deluxe Dark Red 2LP+2CD+Blu-ray Artbook incl. 2 x art-prints, Ltd Deluxe 2CD+Blu-ray Artbook, Special Edition CD Digipak, Gatefold 180g LP+LP-booklet and as a digital album.