March 30, 2023

A dozen tunes shaped around Norse paganism,with some charming throwback moments…

You have to admire the tenacity of older artists who still produce music in this day and age. Like many of his contemporaries, Ian Anderson opens himself up to sniping from all corners with each new release. No criteria is off-limits to the online scorekeepers: vocals, artwork, bandmates, concert set lists, album title… even umlauts, I’ve recently learned (a surprisingly contentious issue to some of the more impassioned fans). Much of this is scrutinized before a note of the music is heard, with varying degrees of consideration: from vague speculation to guarded hopefulness to tactless fiddle-faddle. Anderson has heard it all before, and unlike his more internet-savvy brethren who get caught up in public mudslinging, he wisely avoids entering the fray. He’s also aware that time is no longer on his side, and if he wants to make music, the sooner the better. If his modus operandi results in pissing off a few people due to perceived (or genuine) irreverence regarding the sanctity of Jethro Tull’s legacy, well, the message seems to be: like it or lump it. Like the old man backing out of a parking space without looking, he’s going to do things his way, as comfortably as he can.

At 75, Anderson is a milder character than in his heyday, and it’s unreasonable to expect his new music to match the high-octane thrills that appeared annually when Jethro Tull were at their peak. But while he could easily coast through these twilight years playing Tull chestnuts to crowds who aren’t bothered either way about new albums, Anderson still has music brewing inside of him, and he wants to get it out. His newest creation is RökFlöte, which boasts a dozen tunes shaped around the theme of old Norse paganism and crafted with the kind of calmer refinement we’ve come to know over the last fifteen or twenty years.

Stay tuned for the follow-up album ‘Mërch täble’

Advance singles Ginnungagap and The Navigators will be familiar to listeners already, a pair of latter-day rockers with decent energy and memorable melodies. Perhaps disappointingly, these tracks prove to be among the best on the album, unlike last year’s The Zealot Gene whose strongest material was saved for the full listening experience on release day. But there’s still plenty to enjoy here, including some charming throwback moments. Allfather, for instance, is a chirpy little piece that sounds like something straight out of 1969 when Tull was living in the past, and Trickster (and the Mistletoe) is a rollicking bit of fun that recalls the spirit of The Pine Marten’s Jig from 1980. The Feathered Consort is the type of pretty little ditty found on Rupi’s Dance, while Guardian’s Watch is one of those Tull songs that will fit the yuletide season nicely (despite having nothing to do with Christmas… a vibe Anderson seems to have conjured naturally over the years).

A common gripe from fans over the last decade or so centers around Anderson’s penchant for speaking some lines instead of singing them, sometimes even employing a kind of nursery rhyme storybook cadence (one winces to think back to his Thick As A Brick 2 album, where he delivered the line ‘I was no good on the rugger field…’ as though reading to a kindergarten class). Thankfully this approach is reined in somewhat on RökFlöte, though you wouldn’t know it from opening track Voluspo, presented through the dual spoken words of Unnur Birna (in old Icelandic) and Anderson (in ol’ English). The album’s words had more effort put into their creation than one might realize, as Anderson summarizes:

‘Each set of lyrics was written in the form of a lyric poem with the first 6 stanzas of either Trochaic Octameter or, arguably, 12 stanzas of Iambic Tetrameter to describe the settings, identities and personalities of the different gods. The final four stanzas of each song except the first and last tracks are a different personalised interpretation of those subjects in a more contemporary setting.’

Well, at least he can’t be accused of phoning in some throwaway rock lyrics! Vocally, Anderson operates reasonably well within his considerably diminished range, seemingly aware of his own limitations and composing to accommodate them. Some fans will never accept his modern voice, and that’s understandable considering the powerful pipes he had way back when. But he actually sounds pretty good here, and though the days of belting it out are behind him, he achieves some tuneful moments in the comfort of the recording studio.

An old fashioned electric guitar riff intro once in a while wouldn’t hurt…

Comparing the album’s structure to Zealot, which had songs that used harmonica, piano, and guitar as springboards, RökFlöte tends to come across a tad ‘samey’ from piece to piece, with most songs kicking off with a flute line that introduces the main melody. This is not to suggest the album suffers for it necessarily, but an old fashioned electric guitar riff intro once in a while wouldn’t hurt either. Which brings us to the large, grey, tusky animal in the room. Joe Parrish-James is a lovely guitarist – and the longer-tenured John O’Hara, David Goodier, and Scott Hammond all do they good job they always have – but if we’re laying all the cards on the table, these modern day albums could really use Martin Barre’s magic touch. Decades of weaving his axe throughout Tull’s music cannot easily be replaced, no matter the skill of the replacement. There’s also an occasionally sterile feeling to the sound of these albums that could afford to be spiced up with a healthy dose of no-holds-barred rock ‘n roll oomph. Without wishing to harp on it, it’s deserving of a mention: you are still missed, Martin. Nonetheless, the young Parrish-James lends a touch of folky charm to the proceedings (as he does in his band Albion, well worth checking out) and his work on Wolf Unchained in particular might even prompt ‘chugging guitar face’ in the listener. (I don’t know who or what made the wolf call sound that opens and closes that song… perhaps someone stomped on Anderson’s foot?) Either way, Wolf is a solid track in the upper third of the album, and also gets credit for being the first ever in my collection to use the name Groenendael as a lyric.

Oddly enough, Anderson is not credited with acoustic guitar on this record (something that has dwindled lately in his live performances too). This does give pause for concerned speculation on his physical condition, with so many musicians of his age sadly developing crippling ailments. Make no mistake though, his signature flute playing remains remarkably intact. One of the tracks with the most potential is The Perfect One, with strong verses and an instrumental section that finds Anderson and Parrish-James turning in lovely solos. But it somehow feels like it should have been longer (and it’s not even that short). Perhaps part of what makes a good song is leaving you wanting more, but I can’t help but feel had this one stretched out a bit, it might have been the strongest track on the record – maybe some will think it is anyway.

The verdict then? Ultimately, for late career releases, RökFlöte lands as one of Anderson’s better ones. It has a proper bookend feel (with Birna returning to deliver more of her mysterious lines on closing track Ithavoll), and the overall concept succeeds in providing an interesting – if unorthodox – theme. It’s a touch on the serious side though, with little in the way of whimsy or Anderson’s saucy humour (though in fairness, the subject matter doesn’t exactly lend itself to eyebrow raising or impish grins). In some ways, it feels like a cousin to Divinities in spirit and scope. That is to say: elegant and likeable… but safe. It’s about as good as we could reasonably hope for from a rock elder staring down the second half of his seventies, and there are plenty of fans who will likely find comfort in the fact that after 55 years, we’re still at a point where the Jethro Tull oeuvre continues to grow.