Jethro Tull continues to flout convention on “The Zealot Gene”

If God had wanted more face-melting flute solos in the world of rock and roll, he would have made more of an Ian Anderson. The unique presence of Jethro TullThe flautist and visionary leader of suggests that the universe is content that the flute remains one of the rarest spices in rock and roll cuisine. Fortunately, Anderson and his team are once again busy going out the Zealot Game, their first studio album in 18 years.

The Zealot Gene
Jethro Tull
Inside Out Music, January 28

The mood of the album occupies a sunny glade between a renaissance fair and an Irish spring advertisement. And yes, there is a lot of flute.

The grainy patina that roughened the edges of Tull’s 1971 hit “Aqualung” and which sold over 7 million album copies has mostly been removed the Zealot Gene. Although there are a few overdriven power chords on the album’s title track, the album is largely acoustic: guitars, piano, subdued percussion and flute.

The opener, “Mrs Tibbets”, features a repeated flute melody played against a syncopated hi-hat that serves as the song‘s riff. It’s casual like everything there. In fact, it’s a bit like a sea chant or a party scene with the tiny Druids celebrating their destruction on the Stonehenge stage during a Spinal Tap concert. Anderson’s Bible-inspired lyrics evoke sinister evil much like a low dice roll in Dungeons & Dragons.

“Don’t feel bad, they said, about the numbers/Don’t feel bad about the melting heat/Scorching flesh, soft white blood cell death/And broken ground under trembling feet,” sings he. After a wah-wah-influenced guitar solo, he continues with: “Maybe if Lot had stopped and held on / And maybe if Peter hadn’t turned away / And if that Judas n stole no kiss?/ What if, what if, Enola Gay?

You can use these lyrics to unsettle the cool young deacon in your church.

“Mine is the Mountain” is brimming with musical theater energy as Ian Anderson speaks on soft piano. Listening to this song, I distinctly remembered having eaten a giant pestle at a Renaissance fair in the forest, and I’ve never even been there! Such is the power of the album to conjure up vibrant images. A highly effective musical interlude in “Mine is the Mountain” pits Anderson’s jarring flute trill against a series of powerful drum fills. When his flute picks up some of the distorted energy of the electric guitar, the effect is very cool.

The album’s lead single, “Shoshana Sleeping,” uses synthesized strings and washes to fill in the flute riff that anchors the song. The song’s melody and mood are dark and powerful, like the monologue music of an evil character in Sondheim’s macabre musical “Sweeney Todd.” Anderson, like any good dungeon master, helps set the mood with his description of the scene, singing, “I look, across the room/ The dancing shadow, the torch outside/ The path of lights in the paved way / What I have walked, will walk again.

Jethro Tull fans will be delighted with the latest effort from Anderson and company. One of rock and roll’s most unique bands is back, after nearly two decades, and they’ve crossed this chasm of time and space with their musical vision intact. It always looks like Jethro Tull and no one else ever really will.

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