While Ian Anderson hasn’t exactly been idle when it comes to releasing albums in recent years, solo or otherwise, The Zealot Gene is the first new studio Jethro Tull album since 2003 – and while band members come and go, including while recording this album, Ian continues to lead the band in whatever direction he decides is right at the time. And this appears to work because, after all, Tull have sold over 50 million albums and are one of the most successful bands of all time. Going right back to the late sixties, Jethro Tull has never been a formula band. The bluesy tinge of debut album This Was gave way to the rockier Stand Up. Similarly, Songs From The Wood was different from the prog leanings of A Passion Play...
So, what is a Zealot Gene? Apparently it’s ‘that which sums up the divisive nature of social relationships, and the extreme views which propel hatred and prejudice’. The album began to take shape as early as 2017 and, while it isn’t a concept album as such, the theme running through the album is one of taking a critical look at the extremities which now appear to be dominant in society. Never one to hide from controversy, this includes his take on various religious precepts, with Anderson using religious allegories to make his point. As Anderson says, ‘Music and the arts must surely have the right to question and critically examine all topics, so long as it’s done with respect and sensitivity. There has to be a place for commentary and interpretation’.
This is an album packed full of the classic Jethro Tull sound of their early to mid 1970s heyday, with lashings of flute and the occasional usage of accordion and penny whistle, with Anderson’s whimsical voice – which on this album sounds better than in a long while – alongside some sterling guitar work and thought provoking lyrics. The music immediately brings to mind the Tull of the Minstrel In The Gallery era and is as rocky as they have sounded for some while.
Opener Mrs Tibbets, with its doom-laden lyrics about destruction in Hiroshima, is Enola Gay Tibbets, mother of the pilot Col. Paul Tibbets, who flew Enola Gay to Hiroshima, aafter whom the plane was named. (Who says Velvet Thunder doesn’t have an educative function?) Mine Is The Mountain talks about Moses ascending Mt Sinai to meet his maker, who’s clearly displeased with the world – and the religious theme, with God asking to be left alone, makes it a near relative of 1971’s My God. The Aqualung link continues with Three Loves, Three with its echoes of Cross Eyed Mary. Title track The Zealot Gene offers allusions to the radical, politically charged world of populism in contemporary leadership… ‘a slave to ideology, moderation bites the dust…’ and we’re urged to ‘beware beware the Zealot Gene, a naked flame to gasoline’. It’d be interesting knowing whom he had in mind here!
The religious allusions continue with The Betrayal Of Joshua Kynde, JK being a reference to He who anticipates his moment of betrayal, asking ‘what did I do to so upset you?’ The Fisherman Of Ephesus is a reference to John The Baptist, the last survivor among a band of brothers who all met tragic endings, and The Fall Guy refers to He who is the person sent down to ‘take the rap for us all.’
But there are also social issues considered as well. Sad City Sisters ponders what possesses people to lose all shreds of dignity while going for a night out. Where Did Saturday Go is mainly an Anderson acoustic guitar solo track, though one laced with good usage of the accordion and penny whistle, and talks of a lost period of time between two days, while Jacob’s Tale, again mostly an Ian Anderson acoustic and harmonica solo track, looks at jealousy and avarice inside the family.
This is an album where Ian Anderson has kept things simple. The band rocks out and the playing is crisp and clear, there are no over-extended tracks or soloing, no orchestration and only two tracks exceed five minutes. The lyrics are thoughtful and erudite, and convey their point without being preachy. In short, given the longevity Jethro Tull has achieved, The Zealot Gene is an album able to hold its head high and take its place near to the top in the canon of Tull albums down these many years.