Fans tend to be dismissive of progressive rock groups before they turn progressive, decrying their early work as immature, inferior precursors to their true musical calling. This leads to the unwarranted slander and unjust derision of stellar albums like From Genesis To Revelation, genuinely great compositions whose sole liability is simply not being progressive rock.
This philosophy breeds universal contempt for any release from a future prog rock group that in any way deviates from the prog rock formula, and this misguided prejudice extends to Jethro Tull's debut as well.
Jethro Tull's humble origins lay in the blues genre, a far cry from their subsequent creations, and the group certainly displayed a certain aptitude for this style. This isn't to say that This Was is by any means a lost classic; the group's handling of the blues is sadly marred by the technical limitations of the bandmembers and a lack of creativity with regards to the arrangements, making the album usually sound like generic blues at best. While they were heralded as the next Cream by some overzealous critics they sorely lacked the musicianship that characterized that particular blues super group, with similar deficiencies manifesting themselves in terms of establishing a unique identity for the band as a whole.
This early lineup simply isn't equipped to play the blues with anything approaching the tightness and precision required, as there wasn't a single virtuoso in the band's roster; Mick Abrahams was a solid but unexceptional guitarist, and while he was likely one of the chief proponents of making the blues the group's genre of choice (given that after his departure the band swiftly shifted directions) he exhibits no inherent gifts for implementing or interpreting that style with any degree of inspiration or panache, Clive Bunker is a decent drummer except when he succumbs to the inevitable for a blues group and insists upon inserting a drum solo into the track listing, and bassist Glen Cornick fails to distinguish himself in any meaningful away during the administration of his responsibilities.
This equation would normally make for a rather nondescript blues experience were it not for the band's saving grace, the one factor that differentiates them from not only rival contemporaries in the realm of blues but likewise any other outfit in the genre of rock as a whole, namely Ian Anderson's flute work.
Delegating much of the instrumental responsibilities in the group to a flute was an unprecedented move at the time, a revolutionary idea that would shape the band's sound for years to come, long after they'd shed the trappings of the blues genre. Anderson's flute work is consistently clever and imaginative, and while it can't salvage many of the lesser numbers it at least ensures that these are unmistakably the products of Jethro Tull as opposed to any other faceless blues ensemble.
Unfortunately even with the addition of flute work most of the album is still fundamentally generic blues. Responsibility for this defect isn't limited to the group's technical failings, as much of the album's unremarkable status can be attributed to Anderson's undeveloped songwriting prowess. There was no real solution to this dilemma at this stage in the band's career; Abrahams' gambit at songwriting, Move On Alone, is the nadir of the album, while the band lacked the ability to make blues covers their own; unique flute work alone can't reinvent a traditional blues number like Cat's Squirrel.
This isn't to say that the songwriting is bad; the album is always inoffensive (save for the drum solo on Dharma For One), but it's generally rather unspectacular. There is one notable exception, however, and that's the brilliant Beggar's Farm, a dark blues rocker with a great riff, menacing atmosphere and phenomenal flute passages. It's head and shoulders above anything else the band had written, and it's a clear indicator of the band's untapped potential.
Beggar's Farm isn't the only compelling track on the album, as the cover of Serenade To A Cuckoo features some effective guitar and flute work, and much of the blues material is at least appealing. There's also one other track that certainly stands out, namely A Song For Jeffrey; that number is by no means a blues workout, but rather a quirky pop song with undecipherable encoded vocals and a catchy melody. It's certainly rather incongruous on this particular album, but it demonstrates that the band is capable of much more without the limitations of the blues genre imposed upon them.
The three bonus tracks are intriguing as well, with not a solitary blues track amongst them. One For John Gee is entertaining if lesser, while Love Story is a great straightforward rocker, proving that Anderson's flute work is as compatible with rock songs as it was with blues anthems. Lastly Christmas Song is somewhat pretty but sabotaged by its preachy, didactic lyrics.
Thus This Was is a solid but deeply flawed experience. The only factor that sets it apart from a plethora of other middling blues acts is the flute work, which in and of itself can't sustain one's interests for an entire album. Thus what saves This Was from mediocrity is Anderson's slowly but surely developing songwriting acumen. Beggar's Farm is the first true Jethro Tull classic, while A Song For Jeffrey is the band's first stab at something outside their usual blues comfort zone. However, for the band to succeed Anderson's ability as a songwriter would have to progress rather quickly, as a few more albums with this much filler would sink the group before they had a chance to realize their innate talents. It was clear that in order for this to happen the band would have to emerge from the creative restraints of the blues genre, as Anderson would need more artistic freedom for his potential to be unveiled, transfiguring a decent generic blues outfit into a first rate rock group.
Shortly after the release of This Was guitarist Mick Abrahams resigned from Jethro Tull; at this point future Black Sabbath riff generator Tony Iommi had a brief stint with the group, but his tenure with the band was abruptly aborted due to creative clashes with Ian Anderson that ensured that he never even had the chance to appear on a Jethro Tull album.
Finally the vacancy was filled by lead guitarist Martin Lancelot Barre, whose instrumental prowess easily surpassed that of the departing Abrahams, ensuring that the band came out ahead in this equation. Both a masterful soloist and source of powerful riffage Barre greatly ameliorated the overall instrumental chops of the group, while his impressive versatility enabled the band to move in new directions that had previously been cut off to them by the limitations of their erstwhile guitarist.
It's difficult to determine to what degree to attribute the band's new sound to Barre, but it's likely that the catalyst for this musical paradigm shift was more the lack of Abrahams' influence than any new initiative on Barre's part. At any rate the style of Stand Up is vastly removed from the bluesy modality employed on This Was. The material is still a far cry from progressive rock, but the focus is squarely on straightforward hard rock as opposed to generic blues.
The band don't fully abandon their old sound, however, as Stand Up does indeed contain one blues number, namely the incredible A New Day Yesterday. The song easily eclipses any track derived from their debut, high praise given the caliber of tracks like Beggar's Farm. Boasting a stellar riff and great jamming, it's ironic that just when Jethro Tull mastered the blues genres they promptly abandoned it.
While the band had yet to embrace progressive rock, a genre that was only just being pioneered by the likes of The Nice and King Crimson, there is one clear precursor to the group's eventual style; Bouree is a fusion of jazz, rock and classical, a modern, flute driven interpretation of Bach's composition of the same name. While brilliant even when divorced from its historical significance, the instrumental is elevated to new heights when it's assessed in light of its revolutionary status. Rock/classical hybrids were an integral component of the prog movement, and Jethro Tull were amongst the first groups to popularize this musical phenomenon. The track is absolutely fascinating, with stunning flute work and the perfect balance between adhering to the source material and injecting the band's own personality into it, while its ambitious nature never obstructs the innate catchiness of the number.
Aside from the aforementioned blues excursion and rock/classical fusion, there are also a few other songs that stray from the conventional rock status quo of the album. Fat Man has an infectious groove that's reinforced by humorous lyrics and innovative Eastern influences and the latest chapter in the epic saga of Jeffrey, Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square, is poppy in the vein of its predecessor.
This leaves the more typical songs from the album, but in no way are they any less artistically valid or entertaining than the less orthodox fare. Look Into The Sun and Reasons For Waiting are simply beautiful ballads, amongst the best ever penned by Anderson (although they're rather conspicuously reminiscent of one another), and while it has the dubious distinction of spawning the noxious genre of power ballads We Used To Know is an exceptional song, atmospheric and highly rewarding.
Finally the three hard rockers, Back To The Family, For A Thousand Mothers and Nothing Is Easy, are similarly brilliant. The former has a bluesy edge and compelling lyrical cynicism, For A Thousand Mothers rocks convincingly and makes an ideal closer while Nothing Is Easy, with its hyper catchy melody and phenomenal guitar/flute interplay, is one of the best pure rockers Anderson ever composed.
Thus Stand Up is a fantastic album, proving that even without the trappings of the progressive rock movement Jethro Tull were a simply superb band. The album rocks far harder than nearly any other products from 1969, surpassing other notable candidates like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. As for the content, Stand Up has a lot to offer; featuring uniformly brilliant songwriting, catchy pop numbers, viscerally gratifying hard rockers, pretty ballads, a first rate blues anthem and a tremendous experimental success story in Bouree the album has something for everyone, excelling in every style the group tackles. This diversity coupled with the album's strong performances and Anderson's gift for conjuring exceptional melodies renders Stand Up a true masterpiece, proving that Jethro Tull didn't need prog to produce worthwhile material.
After two albums bereft of the progressive pretensions that would characterize the band's more well known work, on their third outing, Benefit, these prog rock tendencies began to manifest themselves, transfiguring the straightforward hard rock of Stand Up into complex, ambitious sonic wizardry.
One immediately apparent ramification of the gradual emergence of Jethro Tull's innate disposition toward prog rock was a rather abrupt and major tonal shift; a pervasive bleakness permeates Benefit, with these dark elements not only cultivating a brooding, melancholy atmosphere but likewise rendering the album a far more seriously minded work of art.
As is consistently proven throughout the album this more serious, ambitious approach is not necessarily a good thing; as a result of this emphasis on moody atmospherics the melodies are, to some degree, neglected; Benefit doesn't even come close to matching the catchiness and memorability of Stand Up. This doesn't mean that Jethro Tull abstain from crafting strong melodies, however, and these instances of polished, entertaining music are further augmented by the engrossing dark tone of the album.
Ergo while it isn't of the same caliber as Stand Up, Benefit is a great album in its own right, featuring myriad Jethro Tull classics that are well worth listening to. With You There To Help Me opens the album on a high note, alternating between moody verses and a catchy refrain that ultimately culminates with an infectious call-and-answer session between Anderson's flute work and Barre's guitar solos.
Elsewhere Son and Nothing To Say are strong rockers, while To Cry You A Song is even better than those numbers, featuring a spectacular riff that's highly complex yet axiomatically gratifying. Inside is a great flute driven anthem with poppy tendencies and even the much maligned Play In Time can be enjoyable as long as one is able to ignore the layers of eardrum destructive, grating synths that are superimposed over the proceedings, rather focusing on the song that's buried underneath, a pretty good tune sporting a solid riff that would be vastly superior had it received the Stand Up treatment as opposed to succumbing to the experimental excesses that sometimes plague much of the album.
The synths do pose a recurring problem throughout the duration of Benefit; keyboardist synth guru John Evan, despite his near ubiquity on the album, had yet to officially join the group, while Anderson seemed to simply want a heavy synth presence on the LP even if he had no notion of how it should be implemented. Thus most of the synths on the album simply obstruct or, worse, corrupt the melodies; fortunately most tracks overcome this dilemma, and the emphasis on guitarwork ensures that most of the tunes are translated, untarnished and intact, onto Benefit.
There are certainly some issues with the songwriting; the ballads, while pretty, tend to be somewhat bland and forgettable, a far cry from the brilliance of songs like Look Into The Sun and Reasons For Waiting. They're thoroughly inoffensive and indeed enjoyable while they're on, but it seems as if Anderson had lost his knack for producing compelling, emotionally arresting and distinctively beautiful ballads.
The album, already strong thanks to songs like With You There To Help Me and To Cry You A Song, is further ameliorated thanks to the insertion of a quartet of bonus tracks. Of these numbers all four are works of high quality, from the single Witch's Promise to the entertaining Singing All Day, but the album's crowning achievement is the fan favorite Teacher, one of the very best songs that the band has ever produced. Boasting multiple brilliant riffs and superb vocal melodies the track is comparable with the best cuts off Stand Up, a true classic that's a testament to how great Jethro Tull could be even when fully divorced from prog aesthetics.
Thus Benefit is a very good, often criminally underrated, affair. Fusing an absorbing, tenebrous atmosphere with consistently strong songwriting, fascinating instrumental complexity and generally immaculate arrangements the album is yet another triumph for Jethro Tull. While it often gets lost thanks to its unfortunate position lodged in between the two behemoths, Stand Up and Aqualung, Benefit is well worth a listen, not top tier Tull but nevertheless an important stage in the artistic development of the band as a whole.
In an effort to keep up with their prog brethren, Jethro Tull's fourth outing is a concept album, a staple of over ambitious progressive outfits who want to prove the extent of their depth and artistry. In this case the concept revolves around religion, as Aqualung is a scathing indictment of the church; while I share Anderson's distaste for organized religion I would have preferred it if his transparently polemical diatribes were made in a little less predictable, simplistic and pretentious fashion, as the album demonstrates his profound aversion toward lyrical subtlety.
These lyrics culminate in the colossally heavy-handed, bombastic track My God, a song that functions as a forum for Anderson's bile to be unleashed as he condemns organized religion with the grace and precision of a precocious teenager who's just armed himself with a stack of philosophical textbooks.
Fortunately these lyrical liabilities are ultimately irrelevant, as it's rather easy to simply ignore the concept of the album, as Aqualung has much more going for it than anti-religion opuses. Myriad reviewers brand Benefit as an anomaly between the masterpieces Stand Up and Aqualung, as if the latter is a natural progression of their sophomore effort without owing anything to the incongruous segue between them. I certainly don't adhere to this line of thinking, however, as I find Aqualung to be as much the product of Benefit as it is of Stand Up. To be more specific, I find Aqualung to be the perfect fusion of Stand Up's extraordinary melodies and Benefit's more ambitious, progressive tendencies. Thus Aqualung is the marriage of the best aspects of Jethro Tull's second and third albums, featuring all of the hooks of Stand Up while retaining the complexity and artistic seriousness of Benefit.
One common complaint against Aqualung is the array of slight, brief numbers that function as transitions between the more developed, dynamic and fleshed out tracks. While these songs certainly aren't up to par with the more substantial tracks, the harsh critiques these segues often receive mystifies me, as I find them to be pretty, pleasant and perfectly well written for what they are. They perform their limited service flawlessly, and their only defects are simply the inherent consequences of their status as segues, obstacles they were never meant to overcome.
Needless to say, however, the real tracks are the attraction for the album, as Aqualung contains a plethora of brilliant, top tier Jethro Tull prog anthems. The opening title track immediately bowls over the listener with its unforgettable, menacing riff, which leads into a series of stellar vocal melodies and well conceived lyrics (that thankfully have little to do with religion; the album is theoretically bifurcated into two sections, Aqualung and My God, with the latter constituting Anderson's anti-religion onslaught, but there's still frequent thematic overlap between the two halves). The track has rightfully earned its place as a staple of classic rock radio stations, as it's prog at its most catchy, hard hitting and accessible. It's a testament to the caliber of the album that it isn't even the best track, with a multitude of other worthy candidates for that particular honor.
Next comes another immortal classic, as an elegant flute passage slowly develops until it reaches its crescendo, heralding the arrival of the stunning rocker Cross-Eyed Mary. The track has a completely infectious beat with more good lyrics and incredible riffs and vocal melodies. The segue between the opening instrumentation and the start of the song proper is a work of art (though it's later surpassed by the piano solo that announces the presence of Locomotive Breath). The song rivals Aqualung for sheer catchiness and entertainment value, and like the title track it's become firmly entrenched on the set list of classic rock radio stations (which isn't really a compliment given the ubiquity of groups like Grand Funk Railroad and artists like John Mellencamp on those networks, but in the case of Cross-Eyed Mary its fame and acclaim is certainly fully, indisputably merited).
After a quiet interlude with Cheap Day Return, one of the unjustly maligned segues, comes Mother Goose, a poppy number with plentiful hooks and disarmingly charming lyrics that are surprisingly slight given the serious nature of most of the album. The track is actually bookmarked by transitional pieces, as the pretty Wond'ring Aloud follows it with its pleasant acoustic guitarwork with unusually tender, gentle vocals that are nothing like Anderson's generally sneering performances.
The Aqualung side ends with another great riff rocker, the angry, moody Up To Me. The flute/guitar interplay with the riff is brilliantly executed, while the lyrics are dark and menacing, perfectly matching the sinister tone of the riff.
Side two, My God, predictably opens with a track entitled My God (just as the Aqualung side began with Aqualung). As previously alluded to the track is fraught with ham fisted philosophical posturing and vicious yet impotent attacks on the church. While I don't find any of the lyrics offensive on a philosophical level I find them very offensive on a qualitative one, as Anderson was far too gifted a lyricist to resort to such banalities and clichés. While he desperately tries to be savage in his assassination of organized religion the song is simply defanged by his pedestrian execution of this task, a task that's considerably more difficult to implement well than Anderson seems to grasp.
This critique merely pertains to the lyrics, however, as the song's music easily compensates for this childish philosophical meandering. The song, as is certainly the trend on the album, boasts a great riff, and its prolonged length is justified by its multipart structure which includes everything from hard rock to (attempted) Russian folk music.
Hymn 43 is superior on every level, however, as its anti-religion lyrics are far more clever and compelling and its riff is even better than those featured on My God. The vocal melodies are stupendous, and the refrain perfectly balances its religious satire with its innate catchiness.
Slipstream is yet another expendable but still decent enough segue, leading into what many consider to not only be the zenith of the album but of Jethro Tull's whole catalogue, the riff rocker Locomotive Breath. John Evan has graduated from session musician to full time member of the band, and the segue from the aforementioned piano introduction to the opening notes of the riff is one of those rare perfect moments in rock music.
The track is indeed brilliant, featuring an incredible riff that deftly mimics the sound of an engine slowly lurching forward. The lyrics pertain to religion but thankfully they're far more cryptic than the transparent assault of My God's words. The vocal melodies, as usual, are stupendous, and while I'm undecided on the issue of whether or not it's the best track on the album there's no question that it's a true masterpiece. It's the Jethro Tull song that receives the most airplay on classic rock stations, and while this is a dubious accolade the song richly deserves all the attention its gets.
Some regard the subsequent closer, Wind-Up, as an anticlimax, and while it's not up to the caliber of tracks like Cross-Eyed Mary or Up To Me it's still quite a strong number. They lyrics are hardly subtle but the main point, from which the song derives its title, is somewhat clever, and the shift between soft and hard rock is adroitly implemented. Like nearly other track it sports a great riff, and the final recurrence of the refrain feels like precisely the right note to go out on.
Some additional content has been added to the reissue, and it's hardly a perfunctory gesture done to create the illusion of a better value. On the contrary, in fact; the alternate cut of Wind-Up is wholly extraneous, but Lick Your Fingers Clean is a solid outtake while the BBC renditions of Song For Jeffrey, Fat Man and Bouree are uniformly strong performances. The interview with Anderson is also intriguing, but it's a nuisance to have to skip it every time one listens to the album, as it doesn't quite have the replay value of the title track or Locomotive Breath.
In all Aqualung is a true masterpiece, and in my opinion the group's finest hour. After demonstrating an extreme gift for melodies on Stand Up and a moderate aptitude for progressive rock on Benefit, the band was able to marshal all of its strengths and exercise everything they'd learned over the course of their short career in order to produce a truly timeless effort, an example of prog rock at its finest. Aqualung proves that the complexity and dark atmosphere of Benefit needn't compromise the sheer catchiness of Stand Up, resulting in a product that showcases Jethro Tull at their very best.
Long, epic songs have always been synonymous with progressive rock, and by 1972 sidelong tracks like Emerson, Lake And Palmer's Tarkus and Genesis' Supper's Ready had already pushed the envelope as far as song length is concerned. These achievements, however, were dwarfed by Jethro Tull's legendary masterpiece Thick As A Brick, a hyper ambitious project that set a new precedent in song length; the entire forty minute plus album is devoted to a single song, a gambit that had never before been tested in either the realm of progressive rock or even in the entire genre of rock music itself.
There are certainly some inherent risks to an endeavor of this magnitude; if the album-long song maintains but a single melody for its duration, or even several alternating tunes, it's in danger of growing monotonous; if it's too dynamic, however, with a vast array of shifting melodies then its status as a single track grows precarious, as it may simply sound like a plethora of separate songs hastily grafted together, bereft of conceptual unity or a greater cohesive purpose.
Fortunately Thick As A Brick adroitly evades these pitfalls; it does indeed contain myriad melodies, but the band is sure to preserve the singular vision of the album, accomplishing this by crafting a multitude of segues between tracks that enable the song to fluidly cycle between its tunes, with these transitions never feeling overly abrupt, clumsy or awkward.
Given that the album is a mere single song, it's natural that it's a concept album (especially given the fact that concept albums are nearly as ubiquitous in the genre of progressive rock as extremely lengthy songs), though in this case the overarching story is rather oblique; this doesn't prevent the lyrics from being intelligent or entertaining, so one can be forgiven for abstaining from undertaking a lengthy thematic dissection of the song, or even acknowledging its concept at all, with no risk of missing anything terribly meaningful.
The album's main strength lies in the songwriting department, and Anderson has once more fashioned a highly compelling, catchy selection of melodies. Each of the major sections in the song has its own unique melody, and while some recur multiple times they never outstay their welcome or invite any potential tedium. The group is also to be commended for the effort they devote to composing and performing the inter-song segues which always preserve the flow of the album as a whole.
It's true that some songs fail to derive any added potency from their greater role in the context of the album, and would likely be just as entertaining were they separate tracks on a regular LP; nevertheless they certainly don't lose anything from their configuration here, and many of the melodies truly are given additional depth from their placement as parts of an epic suite.
Thus Thick As A Brick seldom feels like it's a single song album for the sake of being a single song album; there's a true method and purpose evident throughout to the structuring of the LP, not mere masturbatory self-indulgence or a childish notion of outdoing its competitors and being the first to try something new.
Brilliant melodies abound, from the genial melody in the acoustic opening to the marching rhythm of the, 'see a son is born and we pronounce him fit to fight' section to the bouncy, unforgettable tune that emerges in the comic book character name dropping passage to the menacing hard rock of the, 'and the youngest of the family is moving with authority' portion. In the best tradition of prog rock the arrangements and performances are flawless, as Anderson's visions are always perfectly realized with none of the innate handicaps of the group's previous lineups to mar or impede the proceedings.
Thus Thick As A Brick is another classic from Jethro Tull, depicting a group at their artistic peak. It's not necessarily superior to Stand Up or Aqualung, but it's still a brilliant work of art from any perspective.
The reissue includes a live rendition of Thick As A Brick; while it's quite good, I can't imagine that someone, after having listened to the studio incarnation in its entirety, would immediately want to be exposed to another version, albeit a far more condensed, compact one. Nevertheless it's a nice bonus, as is the interview with the band that's also included (though that's certainly not something that would encourage multiple listens under any circumstances).
In all the album is the natural product of a plethora of prog groups continually growing more and more ambitious and experimental. It was inevitable that a progressive rock outfit would attempt something like this, and more likely than not it would have been a cheap, exploitive stunt to attract extra attention. Fortunately Thick As A Brick is this concept done the right way, and Jethro Tull were one of the few bands capable of implementing this idea with such depth and precision.
Commercial hot streaks are largely an impenetrable phenomenon, wholly ephemeral with their beginnings and ends adhering to no identifiable pattern of logic. Record companies appreciate this fact and thus devote themselves to mercilessly exploiting a given group's fans for as long as the hot streak lasts, doing everything in their power to profit from this all too evanescent popularity.
Thus it's unsurprising that, in the wake of the massive success of Thick As A Brick, the studio executives elected to release yet another Jethro Tull album in the same year, a collection of singles that would be certain to attract any hardcore fan of the group with its mixture exclusive content and already beloved songs.
Unfortunately the value of Living In The Past has dramatically declined over time, as many of the tracks that could once only be found on the album are currently available as bonus tracks on Jethro Tull's first three outings. This greatly diminishes the worth of Living In The Past, transfiguring it into a glorified compilation as opposed to the full fledged new album it once professed to be.
Nevertheless, there're still a number of terrific, otherwise hard to find tracks, from the brilliant title track to the bluesy Driving Song to the proto-Goth menace of Sweet Dream. While the gratuitous overlap is frustrating, songs like these more than justify a purchase for most Jethro Tull fans.
Due to the number of singles, B-sides and other such fan bait paraphernalia the vinyl edition of the album contained too many tracks for a single album and too few for a double. Thus caught in the nebulous limbo between the two, the record company opted to resolve the situation by padding the release with a couple of live tracks; sadly I can't imagine two songs less worthy of inclusion on the album, as By Kind Permission Of is a drab improvisatory effort from Evan that drags on interminably, a far cry from the gripping keyboard pyrotechnics of Emerson's Rondo, while Dharma For One has gained lyrics but sadly retains its dreadful drum solo which has sadistically been extended for the occasion.
Aside from these live blunders, however, there are no bad numbers (though I still find the sanctimonious Christmas Song grating); there is, however, a rather pronounced qualitative imbalance on the album, manifesting itself in the form of a bifurcation between the pre and post live portions of the LP, with the former being vastly superior to the latter. The early Jethro Tull singles are phenomenal, and while far from bad the later singles included here are rather underwhelming. Two modified versions of Aqualung's Wond'ring Aloud is rather excessive, even if it is interesting to see how condensed the version appearing on that album is compared to the rendition here, while tracks like Life Is A Long Song simply aren't very compelling.
The first half of the album fully compensates for these lapses of quality, however; while far too many of the numbers present here are redundant in light of the re-releases of the band's back catalogue, it's still nice to have stellar songs like Witches Promise and Inside grouped together, while the previously mentioned exclusive songs are absolutely fantastic.
Were it not for the overlap I could unreservedly recommend this album to anyone; as it stands, though, the redundancies magnify the already present defects, as the situation is immeasurably exacerbated by the questionable live material and the qualitative division between the two halves. Nevertheless the album contains far too much great content to ignore, easily meriting the high grade and a hearty recommendation, especially for someone who doesn't own the reissues of the first three albums.
Given that Thick As A Brick had marked the zenith of the band's critical and commercial success, it's unsurprising that for their follow up Jethro Tull endeavored to duplicate this mainstream breakthrough.
The result is another one song album, made all the more ambitious this time around due to its bloated concept, as A Passion Play depicts the death of a young man and the posthumous vicissitudes he's forced to endure during his soul's passage in the afterlife. The album delineates these trials and ordeals through the medium of pretentious lyrics and bombastic arrangements, yet try as he might Anderson fails to make the concept compelling, insightful or even terribly interesting. If one has a desire to experience an album with a concept of this nature then one would be far better off with the vastly superior The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, as Genesis' epic rock opera not only contains far greater melodies but much better lyrics as well, telling a far more absorbing and idiosyncratic tale.
A Passion Play's story, however, is hardly its greatest liability, as for the first time in his career Ian Anderson has failed to compose much in the way of strong melodies. The album cycles through several bland, nondescript melodies, pedestrian compositions that, due to their unfortunate similarities, make for a rather monotonous experience. The tunes are predominantly in the same tempo, based around similar arrangements and with a severe dearth of hooks, often rendering the album an exercise in tedium.
Nonetheless, at this stage of their careers Jethro Tull were far too talented a progressive rock outfit to produce a work bereft of merit, and the album certainly has its moments, but experimenting with tricky time signatures is hardly a virtue in and of itself, especially when it comes at the cost of involving melodies. Thus while diehard progressive rock fans will be ecstatic over the album's complexity, more casual listeners will bemoan the paucity of gripping melodies or engaging hooks. The album is indeed Jethro Tull's most complex to that point, but past artistic triumphs like Aqualung and Thick As A Brick managed to be complex without compromising their innate catchiness or memorability.
Another unfortunate side effect of Anderson's rampant ambition is that the album remains deadly serious throughout, devoid of the saving grace of humor during its main passages. The group attempts to compensate for this defect with the recital of an amusing, wholly incongruous fable that was clumsily inserted onto the album, but while it may dilute the LP's overly serious tone it's not something that stands up to multiple listens, as the punch-line will inevitably lose its charm by one's third or fourth exposure to it. It's also so at odds with its surroundings that it feels like it was hastily slapped onto the album; furthermore, if one actually is able to acclimate oneself to the spirit of album and finds that he's greatly absorbed in the material then this little parable will abruptly wrest him from the musical groove he's gotten into, a groove that more likely than not he'll never be able to get back into.
As has been astutely pointed out, the second half of the album is a good deal more interesting than the first. It still suffers from precisely the same deficiencies, but the caliber of the songwriting is slightly superior, and the overall sound is at least somewhat more dynamic than the nearly static sound of side one. There isn't a terribly large qualitative disparity between the two sides, however; the assertion that the end of A Passion Play constitutes the greatest fifteen minute stretch in a Jethro Tull album is consummately absurd and wrongheaded.
Thus A Passion Play is a severe disappointment after an incredible streak of albums and Jethro Tull's weakest effort to this point. Apparently Anderson was dissatisfied with the original content recorded for the album and abruptly rebooted the group's efforts on the LP (the original material would subsequently resurface on Nightcap), and while it may be possible to attribute some of the album's shortcomings to this decision that argument strains credibility given that A Passion Play's successors are largely afflicted with similar vices.
A Passion Play is by no means a bad album, and it displays moments of typical Tull brilliance, but overall it's a mediocre effort. Unlike with Thick As A Brick, if the individual sections were played independently from their context in the album they would no doubt fail to hold up to close scrutiny as worthwhile songs, while even in their overarching roles on A Passion Play they fail to arrest one's attention for terribly long. While the album gets bogged down by its greater artistic aspiration this only accounts for some of the LP's weaknesses as, in the long run, Anderson's poor songwriting is the true culprit. As always the instrumental performances are immaculate; the musicians simply have too little of worth to work with, with their virtuoso skills applied to bland, drab artistic creations.
War Child confirms the worst fears cultivated by the middling effort that was A Passion Play, namely that its profoundly flawed character wasn't merely a product of its relentless ambition and pretentious nature but rather was symptomatic of the pronounced deterioration of Ian Anderson's songwriting faculties.
Excuses could still be made, and devoted Anderson acolytes might find more solace in attributing this qualitative decline to the band's brutal 'one album per year' schedule as opposed to admitting that their hero was slowly but surely stagnating on a creative level. Nevertheless it's apparent that Anderson's once renowned facility for conjuring catchy and inventive melodies has, at least for the time being, been largely exhausted; his intelligent lyrics remain intact, and they're far less obnoxious than what the occasion demanded on A Passion Play, but from a musical perspective his degeneration is unmistakable and extremely perturbing for fans of his highly melodic early output.
Fortunately cooler heads prevailed when it came to the structuring of the album, thus preventing a debacle of the magnitude of A Passion Play; War Child contains ten songs (seventeen on the reissue), which is far more conducive to educing a decent LP from Anderson in his current state than another one song epic would have been.
Furthermore, by no means is War Child bereft of strong melodies; on the contrary, about half of the album is quite solid, a far greater percentage than on their previous endeavor. Anderson hasn't run out of impressive melodies quite yet, and the result is a far more consistently enjoyable listening experience than the uber-ambitious A Passion Play.
As was inevitably the case, War Child is a concept album, but in a far looser sense than the genuine narratives on A Passion Play and Thick As A Brick. The concept primarily manifests itself through social commentary and other such related diatribes, and they tend to have enough intelligence to compensate for their inherent lack of subtlety. The concept doesn't extend to every track, but it's present enough to give the album a thematically cohesive feel.
As far as the caliber of individual songs goes, the album starts off on a positive note with the title track; while far from brilliant it's suitably catchy, complete with a memorable refrain and solid verse melodies.
My praise doesn't, however, extend to The Third Hoorah, which is in essence a reprise of WarChild that comes across as little more than a vastly inferior bastardization. On an album with only ten songs a reprise is questionable to begin with; if it genuinely added something meaningful to the original it could be forgiven, but as it stands it's simply a waste of space on an already short album.
I actually find the oft reviled Queen And Country to be decent, but the same can't be said for the nondescript medieval style ballad Ladies or the drab, criminally overlong rocker Back-Door Angels.
Unfortunately, while it opens on a strong note War Child ends with a much less favorable impression. Two Fingers is an utter butchery of the Aqualung bonus track Lick Your Fingers Clean, smoothing over the rough edges and diluting its status as a hard rocker.
While these numbers certainly drag the album down, there're still other highlights besides the title track and the decent Queen And Country. Only Solitaire is a scathing indictment of music critics, as Anderson revels in his vitriolic invective, taking apparent delight in every barb and insult he conjures.
Elsewhere, Sealion is a great riff rocker with exceptionally strong vocal melodies in both the verses and the chorus, while Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of The New Day is one of the best purely acoustic numbers in the band's catalogue.
The album's crowning achievement, however, is the stellar rocker Bungle In The Jungle. With an infectious melody, entertaining lyrics and accessible yet complex arrangements, the song is a deserving fan favorite, offering ample proof that even if Anderson's songwriting prowess was waning it had by no means atrophied. The track is the only song on War Child that, from a qualitative perspective, wouldn't have been out of place on the likes of Stand Up or Aqualung, recalling the days when Anderson was at his creative peak.
The bonus tracks on the reissue are an interesting bunch, not only for the sheer novelty of hearing Jethro Tull perform a waltz or giving Sealion lyrics that are actually about a sealion in a purely literal sense, but also due to the presence of decent rarities like the catchy Paradise Steakhouse and the, predictably bluesy, Rainbow Blues. Nonetheless, the caliber of these bonus tracks has little effect on the overall quality of the album, and after a few listens the songs reveal themselves to be largely superfluous, a decent bonus but little more than that.
Thus, in all, War Child is a highly flawed album, but still a pretty good outing in the long run. While around half the LP is wholly dispensable or worse, the good tracks are enough to salvage the album and elevate it to the level of 'pretty good.' While few tracks, save the likes of Bungle In The Jungle, are true Jethro Tull classics, there're enough quality affairs throughout to make for a consistently enjoyable listening experience. With its unimpressive good-to-bad song ratio the album is a far cry from a masterpiece, and it's not quite the rebound one would hope for after its highly disappointing predecessor, but War Child still, to some extent, gets the band back on track, at least to the point that they can once more compose and perform some genuinely good short songs. This alone makes the album worthwhile, and a comforting departure from the one-song-album paradigm.
There are numerous considerable challenges that progressive rock groups face, challenges that conventional, straightforward rock groups never have to deal with. The only difficulties that most bands are forced to navigate pertain to the caliber of their songwriting and the competency of their musicianship; while these are issues that progressive rock groups have to negotiate as well, there's another, equally serious problem that they're posed with, namely sounding like themselves.
This may seem like a ridiculous statement, as sounding like oneself should be an effortless feat, but such is not the case for progressive rock outfits like Jethro Tull, groups whose signature sounds are so complex, precise and intricate that even duplicating their traditional style is a highly labor intensive proposition.
Thus Jethro Tull's signature brand of Elizabethan prog rock is difficult to approximate without a vast expenditure of time and energy, even for the band themselves; one might assume that after all these years it would be a simple task to execute their traditional style, but their sound is so demanding that even sounding like themselves became a tricky matter to accomplish.
Thus the composition of a new album necessitated tremendous effort on multiple fronts, and sadly one of the chief areas seems woefully neglected. On Minstrel In The Gallery the Jethro Tull formula is flawlessly implemented; the tone, atmosphere and sound are spot on, the arrangements are immaculate and the instrumentation is without peer; with regards to songwriting, however, the album is startlingly weak, as if all of the band's effort was devoted to achieving the proper sound as opposed to doing anything new or meaningful with it.
This songwriting deficit doesn't render the establishment of the band's sound meaningless; this very act alone is important, and it's sometimes possible to appreciate and enjoy the classic Jethro Tull sound even when the melodies are sorely lacking. But by no means can a Jethro Tull album that suffers in the melody department attain the status of a timeless classic, as is made apparent by Minstrel In The Gallery's lapses into blandness and tedium.
The album isn't bereft of strong melodies; the title track is decent, the Nordic Cold Wind To Valhalla boasts a somewhat catchy chorus and assorted passages culled from the Baker St. Muse suite are solid enough. Nevertheless, the bulk of the album is devoid of clever hooks or interesting melodies, which effectively sabotages the band's efforts no matter how flawlessly they replicate their signature sound.
Tracks like Requiem comes across as little more than mindless, repetitive acoustic strumming, and even with intriguing lyrics the song has little value, with its simplicity registering as primitivism as opposed to evocative minimalism.
Elsewhere Black Satin Dancer and One White Duck drag interminably; a suitable atmosphere is cultivated for each, but that alone isn't sufficient to salvage tracks with a severe paucity of hooks.
The centerpiece of the album, Baker St. Muse, is unforgivably erratic, alternating between decent melodies and banal effluvia. While I can't fault its ambition its execution leaves much to be desired, and the song is badly in need of editing or greater songwriting refinement.
It's difficult to even acknowledge the closer, Grace, as a song, given that it's less than a minute in length with only a modicum of effort devoted to it, rendering it little more than a light joke, while the bonus tracks add little to the proceedings; the three new songs are just slight excursions into the realm of prog while the live cuts of the title track and Cold Wind To Valhalla are too short to amount to much, mercilessly abridged with their interesting passages largely excised from the performances.
While the band's musicianship is commendable, and the album is animated by the classic Jethro Tull sound which informs every inch of the record, the songwriting is simply inadequate, far too weak to produce an especially accomplished outing.
The Jethro Tull sound, fully realized in all its glory on the album, can indeed make for an often enjoyable listen as long as you don't attempt to scratch beneath the surface, as anyone searching for musical substance will surely be rather underwhelmed. Far too much effort was devoted to capturing the intricacies of their signature sound at the expense of strong songwriting. The quality and richness of the sound ensures that the album will always at least sound good, but the band's negligence in the songwriting department guarantees that one will retain little of worth once the album is over, with a lack of memorabiliy that, at times, devolves into sheer tedium with few hooks to maintain the listener's interest. The album still has its moments, and the brilliant sound is nothing to scoff at, but ultimately The Minstrel In The Gallery is a mediocre experience; the Jethro Tull formula may be flawlessly preserved, but the band still sound as if they're simply going through the motions as opposed to taking their sound in any new or interesting directions.
When one is in a creative rut, as Ian Anderson obviously was after a parade of middling efforts in the mid seventies, one viable remedy, simple as it may seem, is a change of pace; throughout the decade the despotic frontman had been dabbling heavily in either pretentious fare, ranging from uber ambitious philosophical theses to anti-organized religion dissertations, or more chimerical (yet still deadly serious) fancies, often crafting medieval sonic panoramas and other-wordly soundscapes, likewise frequently combining these weighty cerebral treatises with these more fantastical pursuits.
As it so happens, Anderson had been faltering from a creative perspective, and his genre of choice may be somewhat culpable in this development. His incessant forays into these areas were proving more erratic with each passing album, as his lofty subject matter apparently afforded him little inspiration, rather compelling him to repeat the same mistakes over and over again with no sign of relief. He was, quite simply, stagnating, and this was certainly reflected in his progressively deteriorating output.
Ergo it was quite fortuitous that Anderson was approached by a film studio executive and commissioned to work on a soundtrack for an upcoming cinematic project. As it turned out, the film was never made, yet the soundtrack remains, and proves to be precisely, for the time being at least, the antidote to his creative woes.
The album is generally reviled, largely due to how far removed it is from Jethro Tull's typical prog fare, but this is a pity as the soundtrack has much to offer, and is in fact the group's best new release since Thick As A Brick.
Given that the film centers around a rock star, Anderson is forced to operate in a more conventional, straightforward mold, thus compelling him, for the first time since Stand Up, to pen regular rock songs. While the album hardly measures up to the band's seminal 1969 masterwork, Anderson's facility for producing stellar rock songs has hardly atrophied, as he conjures clever riffs and memorable melodies throughout.
By making Anderson function in this paradigm all of the worst excesses from his seventies output are eliminated; rampant complexity-for-the-sake-of-complexity doesn't dilute, obstruct or replace strong melodies, his lyrics are more grounded and emotionally accessible, he doesn't gratuitously inflate the runtime for each song and he's no longer above inserting catchy pop hooks into his numbers.
There are no bad songs on the album proper, as each track has at least something to offer, be it a viscerally gratifying rock onslaught, an inventive riff or an infectious vocal melody. Quizz Kid is the perfect opener, with its soft opening segueing into a barrage of distorted riffage that's sure to give the listener an adrenaline rush. Other superb rockers include the catchy Taxi Grab and the well crafted Big Dipper.
As far as ballads go, From A Dead Beat To An Old Greaser is Anderson's most touching, heartfelt work in ages, as it's evident that he can relate far more to the plight of an over the hill rock star than to his customary, more heady commentary, while The Chequered Flag (Dead Or Alive) ends the album with a stirring emotional tempest that culminates in a moment of true catharsis.
Elsewhere Pied Piper is an immensely catchy pop song, one of Anderson's first in quite some time; as far as the bonus tracks are concerned A Small Cigar is rather pedestrian at best, but Strip Cartoon redeems it and earns its place on the album with a great, memorable melody. It might have been best to eliminate both, as The Chequered Flag is the perfect note to end the album on, but I can't really complain about their inclusion given the caliber of Strip Cartoon.
The best song, however, is the anthemic title track; from its rousing refrain to its simple but effective recurring riff to its lapses into fifties-style nostalgia the number is brilliantly constructed and quite likely the band's very best song since Bungle In The Jungle.
Anderson obviously took this venture very seriously; whereas most groups, when recruited for soundtrack duty, deliver a perfunctory effort at best, he clearly invested a great deal of effort into the project, resulting in a very good album and something nearly akin to a full return to form. As far as soundtracks to unfinished films go the album is hardly on the level of the Kinks' Arthur, but it remains an eminently worthy piece of work from the group, by no means a classic but a highly enjoyable listen none the less, and a much needed breather after the nonstop juggernaut of progressive epics that the band had, as of late, been exposing their fans to.
Given that Ian Anderson had routinely professed to be indifferent to the critical and commercial receptions of his work, it's interesting that many of Jethro Tull's most dramatic stylistic reinventions arrived in the wake of particularly harsh critiques and lackluster sales.
Too Old To Rock 'N' Roll: Too Young To Die! had, moreso than any other Jethro Tull album, been the recipient of limitless bile from reviewers and fans alike, alienating much of the group's audience with its adherence to standard rock dynamics and lack of the group's usual prog aesthetics and rampant complexity.
The band certainly wasn't going to produce another album in that vein; even if it had been successful it's doubtful that they would have returned to that style, as the record was something of an anomaly in their discography, a one time event orchestrated solely for the purpose of matching the subject matter of the film for which it was intended. The album was never meant to represent a long term change in direction for the group, and its lack of success merely reinforced this point.
Thus the band was left with the unenviable task of erasing the critical debacle that was Too Old To Rock 'N' Roll: Too Young To Die! from the collective memory of their fanbase, repristinating their somewhat tarnished reputation with an album that would simultaneously appease their embittered audience and woo them back into the Jethro Tull fanatics fold.
One would have assumed that, in effecting this goal, the band would have returned to their progressive rocks roots, but Anderson had a different strategy in mind, another unpredictable musical paradigm shift that, while counterintuitive, would ultimately prove to be surprisingly successful, namely a foray into the realm of British folk music.
This maneuver isn't as radical a departure from the group's norm as one would imagine; Anderson had certainly exhibited a fondness for acoustic strumming in the past, while many of the band's softer, medieval styled ballads were hardly a far cry from folk music to begin with.
Furthermore, Songs From The Wood is hardly a folk album in the strictest sense of the word, and certainly deviates heavily from the traditional interpretations of the genre. Rather it offers a fusion of Jethro Tull's typical output and the trappings of folk music, translating their old style into a new context rather than adjusting their work for the sake of folk authenticity. It's clear throughout that the folk genre is simply being employed as a new forum for the band's sound as opposed to a vastly new direction, and this fact is reflected in the material on Songs From The Wood which, at heart, is still unmistakably a Jethro Tull album, and is all the better for that.
Some tracks eschew the folk approach altogether. Hence there are rockers like Hunting Girl, a heavy tune with some impressive jamming, while some tracks are hybrids of the two approaches; thus the title track segues from folky vocal harmonizing and traditional folk arrangements into a hard rock jam, and while Jethro Tull had mercilessly abused the soft/hard trick throughout their career it not only works here, but works far better than it had on the title track of Minstrel In The Gallery.
There is some genuine folk, however, or at least rough approximations of the genre. The Whistler is the strongest of these, a brilliant anthem and the zenith of the band's folk efforts on the album. Other folk numbers like Jack-In-The-Green are pleasant if not especially memorable, while Velvet Green is very pretty and works well in both its studio incarnation and the live bonus track offered on the reissue.
Cup Of Wonder is highly catchy, Fire At Midnight is an effective closer, and while Ring Out The Solstice Bells is a profoundly arbitrary choice to be released as a single it's still a good track, if a little bland. Meanwhile the studio bonus track, Beltane, is a terrific rocker and a welcome addition to the album.
While The Whistler and the title track are ultimately the best cuts the album is very consistent and quite enjoyable throughout. Even when the melodies falter the folk sound remains charming and pleasant, while the songwriting is sufficiently strong that this isn't a crutch that the album relies on with any degree of regularity.
Just as the shift to conventional rock on the previous album reenergized Anderson's creative faculties, the move to folk on Songs From The Wood seemed to have a similar effect. His time away from typical Tull progressive rock has served him well, and broadening his horizons was the perfect decision to stave off creative stagnation.
Thus Songs From The Wood is a highly entertaining effort, the band's best since Thick As A Brick. While it may not present a very accurate picture of what the genre of folk was about, with the group simply bending and stretching the style to accommodate their own usual approach, this never poses a problem, as the band adroitly integrates their own strengths and the superficial aesthetics of folk to breathe new life into their work, incorporating just enough components of the folk movement to enable them to offer a creative new spin on the classic Tull sound.
Ian Anderson had successfully won back many of the fans he'd alienated with the with the supposed nadir (though I strongly disagree with that assertion) of Jethro Tull's discography, Too Old To Rock 'N' Roll: Too Young To Die!, with his subsequent effort, Songs From The Wood; surprisingly fans embraced Tull's forays into the realm of folk music, elevating the album to the status of 'fan favorite,' an honor it still enjoys to this day.
Ergo it shouldn't come as a shock that Songs From The Woods' follow up, Heavy Horses, preserves its predecessor's folkish charm, continuing on in a similar vein as the sleeper hit. Unfortunately, the reception that Heavy Horses received was far less laudatory than that of Tull's previous offering, as the album was decried as a slighter effort, a brand it earned with its less serious tone and an array of whimsical numbers that lacked the relentless ambition that informed the group's typical output.
In my estimation this assessment is colossally wrongheaded, overlooking the fact that, from a musical standpoint, Heavy Horses is vastly superior to its predecessor. What it lacks in thematic and lyrical depth it compensates for with a parade of phenomenal melodies of a caliber that the band hadn't seen since 1972.
Uniformly dismissing the lyrics as childish fluff is also an egregious mistake; while there are certainly some lighter tracks designed to be 'cute' and charming, like And The Mouse Police Never Sleeps and One Brown Mouse, there are also some moving and intelligent opuses, like the gorgeous ballad Moths with its haunting yet eloquent depiction of suicide and the cathartic equine anthem Heavy Horses, an ode to the noble steeds displaced in this era.
Fortunately, while it does owe a lot to Songs From The Woods the album is by no means a rehash. One factor that serves to differentiate Heavy Horses from its predecessor is the fact that, on this go round, the band embraces folk to a much larger, more meaningful extent; whereas Songs From The Wood merely adopted some superficial characteristics of folk while retaining the band's classic style, Heavy Horses presents a far more authentically folky experience. This isn't to say that the album is bereft of the staples of Jethro Tull's sound; rather, the songs sound more like they were written as Jethro Tull folk songs as opposed to Jethro Tull songs run through a folkish filter. There are still traces of prog rock on many songs, but they're fused with the musical substance of the tracks as opposed to simply coming across as prog songs with the trappings of folk music superimposed over them.
The album is devoid of filler, with each song offering something meaningful, never relying on the atmosphere to mask melodic shortcomings. The opener, And The Mouse Police Never Sleeps, is an utterly disarming listen, a charming tune highlighted by flute notes mimicking the sound of mice, excellent moody acoustic work, terrific vocal melodies and a creative, unforgettable coda.
One Brown Mouse is similarly slight yet immensely likeable, as is Rover; the album nearly attains conceptual status with its proliferation of animal songs, providing more ammunition for those who regard the album as light and inconsequential, yet I find these numbers endearing and refuse to condemn them for lightweight subject matter or a dearth of thematic import.
No Lullaby may be overlong but it's still an impressive rocker that gradually builds up steam for the duration of the song until it reaches its explosive crescendo, while Journey Man is a tight rocker with a killer bassline.
Weathercock ends the album on a genial note, Acres Wild is a compact, stellar number while the tragic pathos of Moths is gorgeous beyond all words, utilizing an effective metaphor to fashion a truly moving experience.
The apex of the album, however, is the undisputed classic title track, a powerful epic with a driving chorus, a great riff and brilliant vocal melodies. At nine minutes the track never feels overlong or needlessly protracted; the song simply builds in power as it progresses, bowling over the listener with its sheer force and momentum. While the album is consistently strong, Heavy Horses is the only number that truly hearkens back to the band's best material from their peak period in the late sixties and early seventies.
Thus Heavy Horses is a truly brilliant album, filled with incredible melodies and alternately charming and harrowing atmospherics. The album takes the formula of Songs From The Woods and goes even further with it, achieving a perfect balance in its marriage of folk music and progressive rock. While Songs From The Woods was a great album in its own right, Heavy Horses simply surpasses it on every level, with better melodies, less aggravatingly pretentious lyrics and a flawless rendering of the folk genre. It had been a long time since Jethro Tull were capable of producing a work of this caliber, and one has to be grateful for Anderson's decision to merge folk and prog as it delivered two exceptional albums to previously jaded listeners.
Sometimes it seems as if every note a prog rocker plays will invariably subjected to intense scrutiny, and if it isn't precisely what was called for then the poor musician will be lambasted by a wholly unforgiving audience, intolerant of even the slightest defect.
This paradigm extends to live albums as well. Whereas conventional hard rock outfits are permitted to make mistakes, intermittently lapsing into sloppiness during their acts, the prog rocker is measured by a stricter set of standards, compelled to deliver each note perfectly lest the fickle public turn on them.
The prog rocker must be a virtuoso, in the studio and on the stage alike. This unwritten code has bred such extraordinary live acts as King Crimson, who wholly conform to these lofty expectations. Ergo Jethro Tull must face the same cold, unforgiving analysis, with their every note dissected and their every movement studied and deconstructed.
Fortunately, Jethro Tull are a brilliant live act, delivering blistering renditions of their greatest songs with apparent ease. Live- Bursting Out is generally heralded as the band's best live album, and for good reason; it adheres to a nearly flawless set list, with performances that are uniformly superb.
The album is cobbled together from a series of performances from their latest tour, enabling the band to select the very best version of each song. The instrumentation is immaculate throughout, with Martin Barre in particular proving what he was capable of when he was fully unleashed.
The album begins with No Lullaby, an already solid track transfigured into a ferocious rocker that makes the studio cut seem tame and restrained. The song's followed by an old classic, as Sweet Dream has been resurrected for the occasion, benefiting greatly from the live treatment, while Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of A New Day is given a new interpretation that makes the song all the more compelling.
Jack In The Green is a peculiar choice for inclusion but still comes off well, while One Brown Mouse, a rather unlikely suspect for reinvention, is given new life, animated by the live energy and a better track for it.
A New Day Yesterday makes a very welcome appearance as the sole representative of the band's erstwhile blues identity, given a gruff, dirty treatment that suits the song perfectly, but the bluesy classic is eclipsed by what suddenly happens midway through the song; Anderson launches into a phenomenal flute solo which he sustains throughout an entire track, continually fascinating on both a technical and pure entertainment level. While he sometimes needs to ground himself in preexisting numbers, like Bouree and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, in order to keep his bearings, the solo remains wholly spontaneous for the most part, and Anderson never falters for even an instant, keeping the track incredibly enjoyable throughout.
Songs From The Wood is dramatically abridged but it actually works better with this condensed, streamlined and concise approach, while the first disc ends with a sample from Thick As A Brick which functions as a terrific showcase for Barre's guitar pyrotechnics.
Disc two opens with a great rendition of Hunting Girl, which rocks considerably harder in its live incarnation, while Too Old To Rock 'N' Roll: Too Young To Die is brilliantly realized in live form, even receiving a terrific boogie saxophone solo that seems oddly appropriate for the song.
The instrumental Conundrum starts off promisingly enough before it degenerates into an interminable drum solo, but this is the only weak spot on the album, and it's immediately banished from memory by a great version of Minstrel In The Gallery that shed a few of its excess minutes to good effect, while its soft/hard contrast is implemented in a far more viscerally gratifying manner here than on prior versions.
Quatrain and The Dambusters March account for the remaining instrumentals, both coming across quite well, which leads to the inevitable trio from Aqualung, the triumvirate of the title track, Cross-eyed Mary and Locomotive Breath. Each song is handled with the utmost care, energy and precision; Aqualung is heavier than before, Cross-eyed Mary is dominated by excellent flute work and Locomotive Breath has been accelerated a great deal from the studio original.
Thus Live- Bursting Out is a fantastic live album, capturing the band at the peak of their abilities. All of the ingredients of the perfect live album are here, namely skilled musicians, a stellar set list and a limitless supply of rock and roll energy that's imbued into every track. There are a few unfortunate omissions (like Heavy Horses) and a few tracks are somewhat questionable (I like Jack In The Green but I fail to comprehend why it deserves to be immortalized on this album), but these are minor quibbles; Live- Bursting Out is a masterpiece, and an essential purchase for any Jethro Tull fan.
Heavy Horses had been routinely dismissed as a childish digression with its generally whimsical lyrics and occasionally anthropomorphic subject matter; as Anderson had always fancied himself a serious artist with the loftiest of pretensions nothing could be a greater blow to his self-image. He could endure even the most vicious of critiques, assuring himself that the cretinous reviewers simply failed to grasp the intricacies of his profound vision, yet this went deeper; Anderson was on the verge of being pigeonholed as a lightweight performer, and this was something he could not stomach.
Thus Anderson looked to his prog roots for a remedy for his predicament, and the easiest way to guarantee, in the eyes of his audience, a more artistically valid outing was to adopt progressive rock's most inherently ambitious format, namely the concept album.
In order to compose a concept album one needs a concept, so to dispel all doubts of his stature as a serious artist Anderson selected the most overblown and overused concept imaginable, the apocalypse.
In accordance with Anderson's goals Stormwatch is suitably pretentious, tackling deep issues with predictably heady lyrics and frequently relying on tempestuous, bombastic arrangements.
This sounds like a formula for disaster, incorporating all of the worst excesses of progressive rock into a single package, but, surprisingly enough, the album overcomes these self-sabotaging dynamics and delivers a highly enjoyable experience.
This feat is accomplished through Anderson's strong songwriting; after reinvigorating his creative faculties with a trio stylistic departures from Tull's norm, Anderson proved that this streak of quality could continue even after he'd reverted to the role of prog rocker.
Ergo, despite one's justifiable initial skepticism Stormwatch proves itself to be an immensely satisfying affair, compensating for its innate shortcomings with an array of catchy melodies and a consistent supply of hooks.
The album opens with a stellar riff to introduce North Sea Oil, followed by the rhythmically pulsing rocker Orion. This leads to Home, a track that makes great use of a string section, and that's when things start to go awry to some extent.
Dark Ages, while it has its moments, is gruesomely overlong; it preserves the apocalyptic atmosphere with suitable flair and panache, but it suffers from a paucity of strong melodies, and the presence of a few catchy passages can't fully compensate for its melodic inadequacy.
Sadly, Dark Ages isn't the nadir of the album; that dubious distinction goes to Flying Dutchman, another gratuitously long anthem. The song is, like Dark Ages, ultimately inoffensive, but it's still drab and monotonous, with only a modicum of hooks to maintain one's interest throughout.
The remainder of the album is far superior, however; Warm Sporran is a lighthearted interlude that helps dilute, at least for a moment, the oppressively serious tone that pervades the record, while Something's On The Move is a terrific rocker with a great riff and superb vocal melodies.
Old Ghosts is another solid, if unspectacular rocker, while Dun Ringill is a moody classic that, in a testament to Anderson's knack for never determining the ideal runtime for one of his numbers, is far too short, leaving the listener craving more.
The zenith of the album, however, is the closer Elegy, one of the most beautiful moments in all of Jethro Tull's catalogue and the band's best instrumental since Bouree a whole decade ago. The interplay between Anderson's flute and Barre's guitar is remarkable, with their instruments interweaving to form a gorgeous, catharsis inducing soundscape.
The bonus tracks on the reissue are actually quite strong, viable candidates for inclusion on an album as opposed to the dregs of a marathon recording session. Rockers like Kelpie and Crossword certainly merit a listen, though arriving after Elegy dampens the emotional impact of the album's conclusion.
Thus Stormwatch is a highly rewarding, if somewhat erratic, listen and the group's best pure prog album in quite some time. While it may not be the serious artistic statement that Anderson envisioned it as, it's still highly entertaining on a melodic level which, in the long run, is the most important factor on a Jethro Tull album from my perspective, even if it contradicts the dogma of diehard Tull disciples.
As the seventies ended Ian Anderson decided that he would enter the new decade with a solo album, a first for the dictatorial frontman. To this end he fired every member of the group save Martin Barre and headed into the studio with his hastily assembled replacements for the erstwhile Tullers.
The record company, however, was less than enthused about this decision, astutely determining that the name of 'Ian Anderson' had less cache than that of 'Jethro Tull.' Delivering an ultimatum to the would be solo artist they were able to coerce Anderson into relinquishing his exclusive credit, inaptly affixing the Jethro Tull moniker to an album performed by a group that was Jethro Tull in only the loosest of senses. The fact that the Anderson solo debut was effortlessly transfigured into a Jethro Tull album through a simple modification of nomenclature does reinforce the oft held notion that all Jethro Tull albums are ostensibly Ian Anderson solo albums, with the two designations being fully interchangeable.
If there is a way to differentiate between the two, however, it likely lies in a qualitative distinction. A is the band's worst outing to this point, and while that can likely be attributed to Anderson's songwriting inadequacies it's possible that his new backing band are somewhat culpable as well.
Stormwatch is generally considered to be the last album of Jethro Tull's classic era; while this largely refers to the shift in the band's lineup, it likely also alludes to the fact that A is a vast departure from the group's usual sound. Placing an emphasis on electronica, A marks the beginning of Anderson's rampant gadget fetishizing, a perturbing development that would sabotage myriad subsequent albums as well. A has a cold, mechanical, calculated feel, lacking the organic charm of the band's prior efforts. Eschewing the trappings of the Elizabethan rock of old, the genial folk of products like Songs From The Wood and even the flute/guitar driven sound of Stormwatch the album opts instead for ubiquitous synths and a seemingly limitless array of obnoxious sound effects.
Fortunately these defects are sometimes compensated for with solid melodies; Anderson's songwriting on A is erratic at best, but he's still retained enough of his innate talent to pen some reasonably strong music.
The album has an inherent bipolar character, as the track listing bifurcates A into two halves, one boasting some decent tracks and the other consisting of naught but aurally eldritch effluvia.
The album opens with the decent if unspectacular rocker Crossfire, proceeding into Fylingdale Flyer, a track that's somewhat sonically corrupted by omnipresent synths yet sports enough strong vocal hooks in both the verses and refrain to still constitute a highlight on the album.
Working John, Working Joe is a solid tune that leads to the album's zenith and one undisputed classic, Black Sunday. An apocalyptic anthem of the highest order, Black Sunday features catchy vocal melodies, memorable riffs, plentiful hooks and great vocals, while even its usage of intrusive gadgetry actually enhances the overall quality of the song.
From there the album deteriorates rapidly. Protect And Survive is banal, Batteries Not Included is horrifically marred due to the insertion of repulsive electronica into an otherwise decent refrain, Uniform is drab, 4.W.O.(Low Ratio) is an inane jumble, The Pine Marten's Jig is interesting solely due to its incongruity with the rest of the material while And Further On fails to bring any satisfying sense of closure save the natural joy that the album is over.
Even without the endless parade of grating electronica much of the album is mediocre; the gadgetry simply exacerbates the experience, turning A's mediocre experience into a genuinely awful one. These gadgets also prevent much of the better content from realizing its full potential, as the infuriating synths corrupt whatever they touch.
The album isn't saved by its lyrics, either. A is another concept album, though its concept is confined to only a few tracks. Revolving around an imminent nuclear war, A's premise is rather reminiscent of that of Stormwatch, and while it features intelligent lyrics for the most part it fails to be terribly compelling on a thematic level.
Thus the album is a grave disappointment and the band's worst effort to this point. There is some solid songwriting evident at several points, and songs like Black Sunday manage to be extremely enjoyable regardless of questionable eighties arrangements (though by no means are the album's sonic flaws representative of standard eighties production, as even at his worst Anderson knew better than that), but the album simply feels uninspired, as if Anderson had fully exhausted his supply of good melodies by the second half.
On albums like Minstrel In The Gallery, even when the songwriting was flaccid one could take refuge in the album's classic Tull sound; on A, however, when the songwriting is poor there's nowhere to hide, as the sound of the album is even more egregiously bad than the quality of the lesser numbers. The barrage of synths and juggernaut of assorted electronic tricks taints the sound and atmosphere of the album, effectively obliterating the band's classic sound in favor of some hideous hybrid of prog rock and experimental, amateurish electronica, resulting in a product that lacks the tradition Jethro Tull charm that had historically prevented the band's lesser moments from growing unbearable. Without this safety net the band reaches new lows, and thus the group entered the eighties on a less than auspicious note.
One would surmise that a debacle of the proportions of A would necessitate a dramatic stylistic reinvention for a band to recover their faculties and create a product with even a modicum of worth. Such was not the case with Jethro Tull, however, as in the wake of their darkest hour they managed to produce a truly stellar album not through some creative metamorphosis but rather by simply refining the approach that they had utilized on A.
The synths that had infested A, coupled with all of the sonic pollution derived from sterile, grating gadgetry, are still present; while this may sound like an insurmountable barrier the band overcome this obstacle by utilizing these elements tastefully, employing synths with intelligence and precision rather than indiscriminately burying the melodies in these hollow, impotent sound effects. This development can be largely attributed to the band's new keyboardist, Peter-John Vettese, who proves that synths can actually be an asset if used correctly.
While this new equation makes the sound of the album less offensive than that of its predecessor, in and of itself this is insufficient to craft a great album. Fortunately, the reining in of synth excesses coincides with the unexpected resurgence of Anderson's ability as a songwriter; Broadsword And The Beast features a plethora of terrific melodies, the most the band had seen in quite some time.
It's hard to imagine that an album as consistently entertaining as Broadsword And The Beast is the follow up to the dismal A; the LP isn't bereft of filler, as Seal Driver is somewhat bland and nondescript (though it includes some brilliant guitarwork from Martin Barre) and the closer Cheerio, clocking in at less than a minute, fails to register as much more than a charming joke, but the remainder of the record is uniformly superb, with a procession of unforgettable melodies and countless stunning hooks.
Beastie starts the album on a high note, a moody, ominous rocker that's one of the few remnants retained from the original concept album that Broadsword And The Beast was envisioned as (until Anderson decided that he loathed the majority of the tracks and fully overhauled the entire project; the premise had revolved around an epic battle against the beast, with the hero presumably wielding a broadsword). Beastie was well worth keeping, however, with immensely catchy vocal melodies and an irresistible, sly and subtle undertone of menace informing the track.
Next comes the classic flute driven rocker Clasp, followed by the terrific hard luck anthem Fallen On Hard Times with more fantastic vocal melodies and bountiful hooks. This is followed by the great mid tempo rocker Flying Colours and the first side's closer, the bleak, cathartic ballad Slow Marching Band.
Side two opens with the timeless classic Broadsword, a majestic, stirring declaration of war that's all the more potent for its comparative level of restraint. Next arrives the incredibly catchy Pussy Willow that alternates between balladry and pop rock, followed by a truly unique moment in Jethro Tull's catalogue. A panicked anthem of mistrust and paranoia, Watching Me Watching You sounds like nothing else in the band's discography, an electronic rocker with a new wave tinge. The track is phenomenally catchy and all the more effective for its relative incongruity.
How Jethro Tull were able to deliver such a brilliant product after A, the embodiment of all of their worst excesses, is truly mystifying. For the first time in their career the band took a year off between albums, and perhaps this helped reenergize and motivate Anderson, but it's doubtful that enough transpired in the intervening year to inspire him to further greatness.
Broadsword And The Beast is, quite frankly, a true masterpiece, and one of the highlights of the band's second period. It may not be quite as distinctive and true to the band's spirit as some other outings, but I would gladly take the melodic brilliance of Broadsword And The Beast over the authentic replication of the group's classic sound on Minstrel In The Gallery. The album is simply an extremely well written and well performed product, alternating between moments of catchy rock (like Beastie), touching balladry (like Slow Marching Band), subtle grandeur (like Broadsword) and idiosyncratic experimentation (like Watching Me Watching You). The album is also animated by a classic rock feel that's certainly somewhat nostalgic but still feels completely fresh (and this is one of the last times the listener can appreciate this sound before the inevitable metallic reinvention of the group's sound), hearkening back to the glory days of the band without ever coming across as a rehash.
Ultimately the album is an essential purchase for any Jethro Tull fan who doesn't prize complexity over quality and is willing to allow the band to indulge themselves in some mild sonic reminiscing about their peak years without delivering the full thrust of the progressive nature that characterized that stage of the band's development. While they emphasize the group's more accessible traits they never lose the true essence of the band, and that's what counts for the most.
Under Wraps is, in many respects, a product of its time. On a conceptual level the record is very much a zeitgeist piece, exploring the ethos of the Cold War generation, and accordingly the album is drenched in Pynchon-esque paranoia, albeit without Pynchon's insight or intelligence. Allusions to war and espionage abound in the LP's lyrics, as Anderson immersed himself in the fears and concerns of his era.
The lyrics aren't the only department in which the album was influenced by its epoch. Desperate to keep up with the times, Anderson embraced the fledgling genre of synth pop, thus assuming the role of a pioneer in the musical movement before the popularization of the style made it ubiquitous in eighties rock.
Unfortunately, the very style that made Under Wraps' cutting edge at the time rendered it horrifically dated in retrospect. While synth pop may have appeared to be a bold new vision for rock music at the time of the album's release, the years have not been kind to that distinctively eighties form. While there has been some worthwhile synth pop generated during the decade from groups like the Eurythmics and the Cars, these bands succeeded because the married memorable, catchy melodies to the otherwise sterile, antiseptic genre; there's no such luck on Under Wraps, an album that's nearly bereft of pop hooks and thus even further exacerbated by the horrendous eighties arrangements that infest every second of the cold, soulless album.
Instrumentally the main perpetrator of these obnoxious sonic dynamics is none other than Peter-John Vettese, the very man who had ameliorated Broadsword And The Beast with his tasteful, restrained keyboard treatments. On Under Wraps, however, Vettese dominates the album's sound, contributing toxic, grating synth work that corrupts every second of Under Wraps leaving nothing in its wake save aural pestilence.
One repercussion of Vettese's ascent to the top of the mix is the under utilization of Barre, resulting in an equation that mirrors the clash between Tony Banks and Steve Hackett in the early days of Genesis; the comparison doesn't hold, however, because while Hackett was able to fully retain his ability even when his guitarwork was being drowned out by Banks' synths, Barre, during his few spotlights on the album, has degenerated into a generic heavy metal axe man, succumbing to the pressures of the era just as his fellow bandmates had.
The dual onslaught of tepid songwriting and omnipresent nauseating synths makes the album close to unbearable at times, with only a few (relative) high points to speak of. I fail to perceive the merit of the album's opener/bid for hit single Lap Of Luxury, the most universally lauded track on the album, but it's certainly preferable to the majority of the numbers on Under Wraps.
The first installment of the title track, however, is decent enough if one can ignore the abysmal synth treatment it receives (the second installment is an acoustic version that ironically fails to work quite as well but is still an asset as for its brief duration the listener is free of the Draconian clutches of synth pop).
European Legacy is also decent enough, but the entire remainder of the album is consummately atrocious, painful to listen to in a way that Jethro Tull never had been before. Vettese had contaminated Under Wraps, dealing the album irreparable damage that couldn't be overcome even if Anderson's facility for songwriting had been in top form.
There truly are few redeeming factors when it comes to Under Wraps. Vettese and, for the first time in the band's storied history, Martin Barre, are both huge liabilities, Anderson does nothing new or interesting with his flute work, there's a pronounced dearth of riffs and vocal hooks and what passes for melodies are invariably tainted by the unstoppable juggernaut of synths.
The concept doesn't help; while there's nothing inherently wrong with a brief foray into the political climate of Cold War era England, Anderson does nothing interesting with his lyrics, focusing more on penning derivative, nondescript espionage sagas than making any meaningful points about the subject matter.
Ergo Under Wraps is simply abysmal, an aural ordeal that, at the time of its release, constituted the nadir of the band's discography, unseating even the erstwhile candidate for that slot, A. This makes sense as Under Wraps is ostensibly the sequel to A, taking that album's electronic vices and compounding them to the point of near unlistenability. Even A's concept of an imminent nuclear holocaust ties in with Under Wraps' Cold War aesthetics, with these similarities making the presence of the stellar Broadsword And The Beast in between the two egregious misfires all the more perplexing, evoking memories of the inferior Benefit being sandwiched between the masterpieces Stand Up and Aqualung. Whereas Benefit, however, was still quite an accomplished album the same cannot be said for A or, even moreso, the eldritch monstrosity that is Under Wraps, a product nearly devoid of merit.
After a three year hiatus, the longest sabbatical the group had ever taken throughout their illustrious career, Jethro Tull returned to the music scene having once again reinvented themselves to remain a viable commercial commodity and evade the stigma that afflicted most progressive rock groups in this era.
To that end the band eschewed the trappings of electronica, electing instead to redefine themselves as a heavy metal group. Barre had already begun to exhibit latent metallic tendencies in his guitarwork over the course of the last few albums so this heavy metamorphosis was hardly unexpected or a radical paradigm shift, but it still had a huge impact on the band's sound as they replaced the once ubiquitous intrusive synths with generic metallic guitarwork courtesy of the erstwhile virtuoso axe man.
The band's goal is transparent throughout the album, as Jethro Tull strive to prove that they can rock as hard as any other faceless contemporary metal outfits. The sad truth, however, is that the group rocked far more convincingly on albums like Aqualung decades ago, as songs built around great riffs and creative instrumental hooks inherently rock far more than derivative, melodyless effluvia whose solitary aim is to be as heavy as humanly possible, achieving this not through tight hard rock songwriting but rather by simply pursuing ground shaking guitar tones.
Sadly this ill begotten heaviness is the sole virtue of Crest Of A Knave. Not every track is a metallic behemoth, as there are occasional ballads such as She Said She Was A Dancer, Budapest and The Waking Edge, but the focus is purely on deafening arena rock with these ballads simply offering a temporary respite from the nearly perpetual onslaught of metallic anthems.
These ballads aren't terribly adept at providing these moments of respite, however, as they're quite poor themselves. Budapest is gratuitously long with a sadistically protracted, tedious jam, She Said She Was A Dancer is criminally bland while The Waking Edge is a wholly nondescript number.
These ballads are immeasurably exacerbated by a new liability for the band, namely Ian Anderson's voice. While Anderson's vocals had always been a huge asset, during the Under Wraps tour he developed some acute throat trouble, and after recovering he found that his voice had been irrevocably altered, far thinner and less powerful than his trademark sneering delivery.
These vocal woes particularly manifest themselves on The Waking Edge, but they present a problem on nearly every track. Anderson had yet to learn how to mask his impaired vocals and the result is the worst collection of vocal performances of Anderson's storied career.
Mediocre vocals are hardly the album's only vice, however, as the omnipresent metallic rockers are nearly uniformly awful, often bereft of anything approaching a coherent or memorable melody.
There are exceptions to this rule, as Jump Start at least features a catchy vocal melody, but for the most part the band's forays into heavy metal prove ill advised to say the very least.
The interplay between Barre's guitar licks and Anderson's flute work has lost all of the freshness it once had, as it's been relentlessly abused to the point of total stagnation. With nearly every track containing the exact same instrumental dynamics the album is a largely monotonous affair, and with the lack of well developed, unique melodies there's little to differentiate one track from another (save the ballads, which have their own set of problems).
Thus Crest Of A Knave depicts one of the most gifted groups of the progressive rock scene reduced to the role of a me-too generic heavy metal band. Worst of all the public encouraged Anderson in his metallic endeavors, as the album is a fan favorite and was even awarded the Grammy for best heavy metal album of the year, beating Metallica's far more deserving …And Justice For All.
I have nothing against heavy metal, and when a group concocts clever riffs and memorable vocal melodies for their metallic anthems I find the genre quite enjoyable. What Jethro Tull have created, however, is a far cry from the apex of the genre, as Anderson's penned a procession of bland, generic, derivative and simply unsatisfying tracks that, by immersing themselves in heavy music and crunchy guitar tones, attempt to conceal how little substance they truly have.
Spurred on by the success of Crest Of A Knave, Jethro Tull took the conservative approach and produced a follow up that was very much in the same vein as its award winning predecessor. In the process they prove that the only thing that's worse than an abysmal heavy metal album is a rehash of an abysmal heavy metal album, as at least Crest Of A Knave sought to take the band in new directions rather than simply regurgitating a carbon copy of their past work.
There's very little to laud about Rock Island, as it shares the same defects as Crest Of A Knave as well as the same lack of compelling material. There is a single song that's praiseworthy, the genial, flute driven Another Christmas Song, but nearly all of the album's content conforms to the category of generic, grating heavy metal.
The Whaler's Dues at least aspires to more, an attempt at a moving, atmospheric epic, but it fails to offer much in the way of substance and ultimately never fulfills any of its lofty pretensions, simply coming across as a drab, needlessly prolonged sonic saga, never evoking the necessary sense of pathos for the protagonist of its tale (the track revolves around the punishment of a man who slew a whale to provide food for his starving family, something akin to a nautical Les Miserables) or offering any captivating melodies.
Barre's guitar tone is also suspect, as it sounds like a second rate impersonation of David Gilmour, and this compounds the already grating quality of his guitarwork, rendering it sterile and antiseptic while bereft of any true, viscerally gratifying rock and roll energy. In order for heavy metal to be engaging it needs to connect with the listener, something that can't be achieved by cold, lifeless guitar licks and riffage.
Rock Island is, in theory, a concept album, but then again nearly every progressive rock release professes to be a concept album and there's seldom any indication of their conceptual status. Anderson tends to take the easy way out, making his concepts more abstract and general and thus adhering to them in only the loosest of senses, perhaps inserting a few vague, overlapping themes and declaring the album a cohesive whole. At any rate the concept of Rock Island adds precious little to the album as a whole, while Anderson's lyrics are hardly a tour de force this time around, thus failing to compensate for Rock Island's melodic inadequacies.
Rock Island is, quite simply, an atrocious album, heavy metal at its most insipid and generic. The band never betrays any signs of inspiration, simply going through the motions of being a heavy metal outfit, with neither exceptional songwriting nor particularly outstanding musicianship on the part of the band. This makes for a rather dismal experience with few redeeming values.
Fortunately the album sold poorly, thus signifying to Ian Anderson that this latest incarnation of the band lacked long term commercial viability, accordingly convincing him to abstain from heavy metal excesses on his next few releases. The band simply lacked a flair for the genre, missing elements like strong riffs and vocal hooks that were once the specialty of the group. That time had passed, however, leaving the group unequipped to handle this particular style, with Anderson lacking the necessary songwriting tools to distinguish the band as any more than a standard, run of the mill metal act.
Ergo Rock Island is an eminently skippable product, containing a solitary decent tune amidst a sea of worthless effluvia. If one liked Crest Of A Knave then they're apt to find much to like here, as Rock Island is shamelessly reminiscent of its predecessor, but if one had an adverse reaction to the aural pestilence that was Crest Of A Knave then they're advised to take a pass on this one.
While Catfish Rising is certainly a flawed, erratic outing, it's still a considerably better effort than its predecessor, and in most respects simply a far more tasteful product. The commercial failure and critical evisceration of Rock Island must have been an epiphanic experience for Anderson, as the ubiquitous heavy metal that characterized that lackluster album is now kept to a minimum, and even the instances in which the band revert to that style are far superior.
This superiority is evident in tracks like Occasional Demons, a song that's seemingly a parody of the vapidity of contemporary death metal (though from a melodic perspective that number is wholly unremarkable) and Doctor To My Disease, a decent metallic rocker that never amounts to much but is far from offensive.
The true heavy metal classic, however, is the opener This Is Not Love, a stellar rocker that effortlessly surpasses all of the band's recent efforts in that genre. While its riff is rather simple and familiar it's still effective, while the vocal melody is extremely catchy and memorable. The instrumentation retains its off-putting generic metal sound, but the caliber of the songwriting compensates for that failing.
The bulk of the album, however, is not devoted to metal, a truly refreshing fact that renders Catfish Rising a far more listenable experience than the duo that came before it. Much of the album is bland and forgettable but the tracks, for the most part, are inoffensive, and perfectly tolerable throughout.
Additionally there are a handful of truly enjoyable tunes. The quality of the aforementioned metallic rocker This Is Not Love has already been established, but as for the zenith of the non-metallic content there are some great tracks like the moody epic Rocks On The Road as well as some solid moments like Sparrow On The Schoolyard Wall.
The former in particular stands out, as it's precisely the sort of epic anthem that progressive rock groups at this advanced stage of their lifespan can seldom pull off, with the songs usually succumbing to blandness and pretentious posturing. Rocks On The Road, however, has something to offer both musically and lyrically, with only a modicum of self-indulgent self-importance, a track that's entertaining and never boring yet retains its integrity as a progressive epic.
Meanwhile the latter, Sparrow On The Schoolyard Wall, is quite catchy if ultimately unspectacular, a pleasant tune with plentiful vocal hooks and a disarmingly charming, casual and gentle feel.
There are, as must always be the case on late period Jethro Tull albums, some utter misfires that constitute the nadir of the disc. Roll Yer Own, for example, is a perfectly decent number, or rather would be if it weren't for Anderson's baffling insistence on needlessly prolonging the song far past the boundaries at which the music and lyrics could reasonably sustain it.
Elsewhere Still Loving You Tonight is puzzling in the reaction it evokes from most listeners, as it's the instrumental breaks that tend to elicit the ire of Jethro Tull fans. While I approve of the harsh critiques that the song is usually the recipient of I've never detested the track's instrumental breaks in particular; rather, I loathe Still Loving You as a collective whole, with no one aspect standing out to make the song anathema to me but rather a confluence of flaws that plunges the track into the depths of mediocrity or even worse.
Finally White Innocence is another obvious low point, a tedious experience that's protracted far beyond sane levels, lacking any meaningful hooks or melodies to justify either its length or its existence.
Other tracks certainly have flaws; the innate stupidity of the lyrics of Like A Tall Thin Girl may well be intentional, yet they're still grating, and When Jesus Came To Play is a bit too pretentious for its own good with insufficient depth to animate the potentially intriguing subject matter, but even these lesser numbers are far from bereft of merit, never actively bad or even mediocre but simply unspectacular efforts that are inoffensive but forgettable in the long run.
This is symptomatic of Catfish Rising as a whole. It's far more listenable than its predecessor with a healthy amount of diversity when compared to the static style of Rock Island but by and large most songs inhabit the nebulous limbo between inoffensive filler and genuinely decent songs. There are some stellar standouts as I've alluded to, with few tracks that I'd label as 'bad,' but the main appeal of the album is the mistakes it doesn't make as opposed to what it actually does right. When contrasted against Rock Island or Crest Of A Knave the album seems brilliant, but when assessed independently of its context in the band's discography it's a somewhat tepid effort. Forays into folk, pop and balladry enable the album to sustain the listener's interest while it's on but unfortunately, in the long run, little is worthy retaining once the album's over.
Nightcap is a perplexing package; while its two discs resemble one another superficially in that they're both composed of previously unreleased material, the songs of each are culled from vastly different contexts, and thus each CD has its own unique identity with very little to unify the duo.
This makes for a decidedly bipolar affair, and at first it's difficult to reconcile the two discs with one another. Each exists for a specific purpose, with little overlap between the two CDs' roles.
The first disc, entitled The Chateau D'Isaster Tapes, is comprised of the infamous sessions recorded while the band was abroad due to a tax evasion scheme that Ian Anderson had concocted. These recordings were originally conceived as the follow up to Thick As A Brick until Anderson grew dissatisfied with them and opted to abort the project, leading to the hasty composition of A Passion Play.
This decision is extremely revelatory about the inner workings of Ian Anderson's mind because, as is made evident even a few minutes into the recordings, these sessions are vastly superior to A Passion Play in nearly every department, particularly trouncing it with regards to the caliber of its melodies.
Given the dictatorial frontman's relentless ambition and perpetual desire to prove himself as an artist rather than a mere rock star, his motivation in dismissing these sessions in favor of A Passion Play is transparent to anyone the least bit familiar with Ian Anderson's persona. From a conceptual perspective the D'Isaster Tapes are woefully insubstantial when compared to the epic scope of A Passion Play; equally true, however, is that the concept of the former is at least moderately charming as opposed to the pretentious, bombastic mess that would function as its replacement.
Conceptually, the sessions were divided into three disparate sections; the first pertains to animal life in a fashion that predicts the subsequent hit single Bungle In The Jungle, the second is devoted to excoriating music critics (an interesting choice given that Anderson always professed to be indifferent to his works' critical reception) while the third treats the stage as a microcosm for the world itself.
Apparently these concepts didn't constitute the profound thematics that Anderson craved for his work, so he shelved the project and elected to pen a painfully pretentious tale about a man's passage through hell. While this may have gratified his innate ambitions it certainly didn't improve the final product, and proved a disastrous choice from a qualitative perspective.
The importance of the concept of either album, however, pales in comparison to the significance of the quality of the songwriting, and it's in this department that the D'Isaster Tapes truly shine. The album is filled with brilliant melodies, plentiful hooks and clever lyrics, while these musical visions are superbly realized by extremely tight, precise instrumentation. Many of the tracks are instrumentals, and they're amongst the band's best ever, attaining similar heights to the likes of Bouree and Elegy.
Passages of the album involve rock/classical fusion, adroitly implemented by the group who simultaneously pay homage to the old masters while still imbuing each note with their own personality.
Meanwhile the tracks with lyrics are exceptional as well; the sly Look At The Animals and the stellar Law Of The Bungle are both accomplished in the melodic and lyrical department, in their cases employing animal life as a medium for Anderson's customarily misanthropic social commentary, Solitaire is a scathing indictment of rock critics and No Rehearsal eloquently expresses Anderson's philosophy while treating theater as an apt trope.
The zenith of the album, however, may very well be the incredible jam Critique Oblique, featuring unparalleled musicianship further augmented by the band's brilliant chemistry. The jam remains dynamic throughout, always shifting to a new melody before the track can devolve into monotony. Despite its length the track is compelling throughout, filled with inventive flute riffs, terrific guitarwork and an infectious energy that animates the entire number.
Unfortunately the second disc, Unreleased & Rare Tracks, is the proverbial albatross around the album's neck. Most of its best cuts, like Quartet and Paradise Steakhouse, had previously surfaced as bonus tracks on the band's latest batch of reissues, and many of the truly new numbers are pedestrian at best.
With eighteen tracks worth of alternately redundant and subpar music, with only a few truly worthy additions to the band's canon, the disc can grow quite trying, amounting to little more than a tedious experience.
Thus the final package is marred by the inclusion of this extraneous disc, a pity given the stunning caliber of the D'Isaster Tapes. Nonetheless the double album easily merits a purchase for any Jethro Tull fan if only for the first disc, while disc two also warrants attention if you've never heard tracks like the impressive instrumental Quartet and the eccentric Sealion II.
Disc one is truly the album that A Passion Play should have been, robbed of this position by Anderson's self-indulgent excesses, the very same that had sabotaged the band on numerous occasions. With more temperance Anderson would have perceived what a remarkable listen the D'Isaster Tapes provide, and saved his fans the acute disappointment of the middling A Passion Play. Still, better late than never, as the tracks are as entertaining now as they would have been had they been released at a more appropriate juncture, and the second disc hardly dilutes the package in any meaningful or irreparable ways. The album is a necessity for all Jethro Tull followers, fans and fanatics alike.
The primary factor that differentiates Roots To Branches from the band's past work is a decidedly Eastern influence that permeates much of the album. The ultimate effect of this flirtation with Indian elements, however, is negligible at best, rarely manifesting itself in any meaningful way over the course of the CD, and the result is a final product that, despite its best efforts to distinguish itself from its predecessors, is highly reminiscent of standard nineties Jethro Tull fare.
The album also endeavors to hearken back to a different era of Jethro Tull music; accordingly, heavy metal jamming is kept to a minimum, rather emphasizing acoustic guitarwork and flute passages. Unfortunately these nostalgic exercises are impeded by subpar songwriting, never once offering anything even vaguely resembling the band's glory days from a qualitative perspective. They're still vastly preferable to mindless heavy metal posturing, but they fail to provide anything meaningful save a welcome change of pace.
While it evades heavy metal clichés, Roots To Branches is sadly sabotaged by the very medium it's contained on. Due to the additional space a CD offers Anderson elected to make use of every last second of recording time despite an already egregious lack of strong content to sustain an album with. Ergo many tepid songs are sadistically prolonged to ridiculous lengths; given that Roots To Branches is already rather stylistically uniform this is a formula for disaster, as the album swiftly degenerates into a tedious, exasperating ordeal.
Despite these impediments the album isn't bereft of merit. The title track is a Jethro Tull classic, with a great melody and moody instrumentation. Nothing else lives up to the promise of this stellar opener, however; there's the occasional decent effort or moment of entertainment but overall the album has little to offer in the musical department (though the lyrics tend to be considerably stronger than the melodies, the status quo for this epoch of the band's career).
It's not that the songs are offensive (though there are sporadic instances of dissonance that could qualify), they're merely monotonous and criminally overlong, which plunges the album into the abyss of drabness. There are no standout melodies save those featured in the title track, thus rendering the album a considerably frustrating experience as the listener longs for the end of each track after the first few bland minutes, conscious of the cruel fact that the song is far from over.
The Eastern elements fail to make the music the least bit fresh or exciting; rather, they come off as a superfluous gimmick, and in all honesty Indian motifs may very well have been better implemented decades ago when Stand Up's Fat Man featured a guitar imitating a sitar to imbue the track with an exotic character. Roots To Branches is hardly a foray into the realm of world beat, and accordingly its pretensions in rock/Indian fusion dynamics never even have the chance to amount to anything meaningful, seeming more like a highly anachronistic me-too ploy irrationally displaced from its natural context in the psychedelic era when nearly every act tried to appear fashionable by brandishing a sitar midway through each summer of love anthem.
Thus while not as irredeemable as albums like Under Wraps, Crest Of A Knave and Rock Island, largely thanks to the lack of heavy metal effluvia, Roots To Branches is a rather pedestrian outing, a generic Jethro Tull album with only a single truly great track to speak of. The album is badly in need of an editor, as Anderson seemed incapable of showing any measure of restraint at this stage of his career. Without the consummately self-indulgent overlong runtimes the album would be far more bearable, though it would still suffer from a paucity of strong melodies.
Ergo the album can easily be skipped (though, in yet another incomprehensible twist, Roots To Branches is often hailed as a stunning return to form), with only the title track meriting much in the way of attention. Otherwise the CD is simply a collection of overlong, interchangeable mediocrities, largely what one has come to expect from late period Jethro Tull albums.
In 1999 it had been close to two decades since Jethro Tull had released anything approaching a worthwhile album, and with each subsequent dismal effort it became progressively less likely that the band could ever end this streak of aural pestilence. Ian Anderson's songwriting had been wretched, Martin Barre had metamorphosed into a generic heavy metal guitarist and the revolving door system for the other members dispelled any hope of the musicians developing anything even vaguely reminiscent of a good chemistry together.
These ingredients were hardly conducive toward the creation of a good album, and it appeared that the group were condemned to wallow in a pit of, at best, mediocrity for the remainder of their lifespan. It was inconceivable that Jethro Tull could launch a successful comeback, and a return to form seemed impossible barring divine intervention from the god that Ian Anderson had made a career of deriding.
Nevertheless the band continued to persevere even in the face of hopeless odds and somehow, at the turn of the century, Jethro Tull released their best album since Broadsword And The Beast nearly twenty years ago. Nothing had overtly changed; the band lineup was unaltered, the group still dabbled in heavy metal and Anderson still hadn't recovered the full range of his vocal prowess, yet while their condition appeared static Jethro Tull had somehow managed to defy the odds and produce a truly excellent listen.
The band lineup may have remained unchanged yet this was irrelevant; barring Martin Barre and, obviously, Ian Anderson, it had been a long time since a musician had, individually, played a meaningful role on a Jethro Tull album, while the caliber of the band instrumentation had never posed a problem that was in need of addressing. Anderson only recruited topnotch performers who were capable of realizing his complex, convoluted artistic visions, ergo neither the addition nor subtraction of these glorified session musicians could have much of an impact on the CD.
Thus the changes never stemmed from any fluctuations in the band's lineup, but rather arose from Anderson and Barre themselves. I'd alluded to the fact that J-Tull Dot Com continues the band's flirtation with heavy metal, but thankfully Barre has progressed immeasurably in that department; his guitar tones are less obnoxious than before, while his playing is far more fluid, organic and distinctive than his recent metallic posturing. Barre's degeneration from creative virtuoso to generic heavy metal guitarist had been distressing to witness, rendering his relative return to form very refreshing for his longtime fans.
While Anderson has not, nor will he ever, reclaim his old voice, he's at least managed to adjust his vocal style to better mask his shortcomings; on J-Tull Dot Com his singing is far softer, and while this is a radical departure from his trademark sneer it tends to work rather well, especially given his innate limitations in this area. When Anderson had attempted to retain his old vocal stylings after his bout with throat disease his singing had simply been grating, thus the fact that he'd finally confronted and resolved the situation makes his new vocal modality a huge asset.
Anderson's voice and Barre's guitarwork are only superficial changes, however, and in no way account for the dramatic improvement of the album. The true genesis of this amelioration can be fully attributed to Anderson's efforts as a composer; for the first time in ages Anderson's songwriting has regained its lost brilliance, and the result is an album filled with terrific hooks and memorable melodies.
The album opens on an auspicious note with the stellar rocker Spiral, which boasts a great riff and a superb vocal melody. The track is a far cry from generic metal, coming across as more of a hard rock/pop fusion with its crunchy riffs and poppy vocal hooks that make Spiral one of the catchiest songs on the album.
Dot Com is simply beautiful, with elegant flute passages and a moody atmosphere. The song deals with online romance, and while the lyrics are sometimes clumsy and awkward (Anderson transparently strove to employ up to date techie vernacular to suit the trendy subject matter and thus come off as less of a dinosaur) the melody is spectacular and the vocal hooks are truly unforgettable, while Anderson's gentle tone makes the song all the more hypnotic and captivating.
AWOL is catchy, utilizing the band's old trick of alternating harder and softer passages, while Wicked Windows is a haunting ballad with inventive hooks and a decent intro (Nothing @ All) leading into it.
Meanwhile Hunt By Numbers sports the greatest riff on the album, a heavy, menacing monstrosity in the best tradition of erstwhile member (admittedly only for a few months) Tony Iommi. The track also has a solid vocal melody, with an ominous refrain that reinforces the tenebrous nature of the track.
Elsewhere El Nino adroitly captures the tempestuous feel of a hurricane with dark, chaotic riffage and the unsettling repetition of the title, while Black Mamba, while not a highlight, is still well crafted and entertaining.
Bends Like A Willow is another worthwhile offering, Far Alaska features some great jamming, The Dog-Ear Years is certainly lesser yet far too enjoyable to simply dismiss while A Gift Of Roses is the perfect closer with its hyper catchy, infectious pop overtones.
This leaves the nadir of the album, Hot Mango Flush and its diminutive reprise Mango Surprise. Neither song is bad, they simply sound incongruous and melodically underdeveloped. Neither boasts any exceptional hooks or even compelling atmospherics, and they feel as if they have little purpose on the album. J-Tull Dot Com is sufficiently long that there's no reason to include this duo, and had they been excised the album would flow much better as well.
Thus J-Tull Dot Com is a great outing; there are myriad, completely rational reasons to be wary of the album; even when ignoring the caliber of the band's recent output the title alone makes the CD suspect, as it implies that Jethro Tull are aspiring to a contemporary notion of hipness, embracing modern musical concepts and trend hopping with reckless abandon.
Fortunately this is not the case; barring the lyrics of J-Tull Dot Com the album never attempts to be the least bit trendy or up to date (which is fortunate, as such an attempt would invariably prove disastrous and simply embarrassing), and the CD even has something of a classic rock feel that had been conspicuously absent from their recent work.
Ergo J-Tull Dot Com is an amazing return to form, a highly entertaining album filled with clever riffs, catchy hooks, tight performances and memorable melodies. The album is a reminder of why Jethro Tull are such a great band, something that one could be forgiven for forgetting after the processions of debacles that constituted the group's recent output.
Jethro Tull weren't the first ambitious, serious band to release a Christmas album; groups like the art rock outfit The Moody Blues had produced holiday oriented records, in their case the genial December.
Ergo the shock that Ian Anderson would be involved in a Christmas album doesn't stem so much from his customary lofty pretensions that would seemingly place him above such a trivial subject matter, but rather from his innate distaste for all things religious, with a particular emphasis on the church.
Anderson was notorious for his antipathy toward organized religion, with this contempt first manifesting itself as early as tracks like My God on Aqualung. Thus it's difficult to fathom how Anderson would consent to be involved with a project of this nature, a mystifying chain of events that are hard to reconcile with the despotic Jethro Tull frontman's inherent disposition.
This enigmatic situation is somewhat easier to decipher upon listening to the album. While the focus is, obviously, on Christmas, it's a Christmas that's divorced from its religious connotations, centering more on the warm atmosphere, festive spirits and feeling of togetherness that characterize the holiday as opposed to the usual Christian fundamentals associated with it.
While this clarifies Anderson's motives to a degree it still leaves little indication of what, precisely, a Jethro Tull Christmas album would be like. Obviously bereft of hymns or religious sentiments the group would have to find other ways to tackle the holiday, and in this case the band tend to focus on tracks that fit the proper mood regardless of any lack of true connections with the holiday.
Thus the album features myriad reworkings of old Tull standards that may have nothing to do with Christmas but evoke a suitable atmosphere nonetheless. The folksy Weathercock makes an appearance, for example, as do tracks like Fire At Midnight and Ring Out Solstice Bells. Even Bouree is resurrected for the occasion, a dramatically altered interpretation that makes the instrumental well worth checking out even for diehard Tull fans who know the track by heart.
More predictable inclusions from early in the band's canon include A Christmas Song, which is still gratingly didactic and preachy, as well as the far superior Another Christmas Song which is as catchy as ever.
Anderson also penned several new songs for the occasion, with the best of them being the opener Birthday Card At Christmas, a stellar rocker propelled forward by inventive flute riffs and often menacing lyrics that most likely don't cultivate the atmosphere the record company had in mind when they pitched the idea of a Christmas album to the group.
When it comes to actual holiday standards, the group tends to opt for instrumental renditions as Anderson was obviously loath to sing typical Christmas banalities. Thus they select tracks like a version of Greensleeves as well as the album's highlight, a blistering rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen that makes it abundantly clear why Anderson was fond of including excerpts from the number during many of his live flute improvisations. Featuring unparalleled flute playing, an irresistible jazzy piano and tasteful guitarwork the track ranks up there with the best of the band's instrumentals, a worthy successor to the likes of Bouree, Elegy and Critique Oblique.
Thus the group that one would most expect never to produce a Christmas album has, in fact, produced one of the best, an intelligent, professional and creative work that's a far cry from the usual regurgitations of, at one extreme, a parade of proselytizing hymns or, at the other, a medley of Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty The Snowman and Santa Clause Is Coming To Town.
While the paucity of truly new content prevents the album from being a true masterpiece, it's still an eminently worthy offering, featuring a satisfying blend of old material, new material and intriguing covers. I wouldn't say that the album is trying to subvert the subtext of the holiday season, but it's certainly atypical for a Christmas album, and is thus an LP that evades the usual plight of such CDs and accordingly can be enjoyed in any season, amounting to anything but a once a year listen.