Let’s remind ourselves of one thing at the start: a band is releasing new material after 50 years of existence. Allow that sobering timespan to sink in. How could such a thing even be possible? Given that context, the new release from Jethro Tull is quite the successful achievement. Perhaps a different kind of success from the classic beloved albums released in their first decade but rather, this is an achievement imbued with respect and honor. Because even 50-plus years on, this Tull still sounds damn good.
More than most other bands, Jethro Tull has always primarily revolved around one man and therefore it feels appropriate that the presence of Ian Anderson is enough to warrant this being attributed to Jethro Tull. Still, there is the tugging question of Martin Barre’s absence, as well as the fact that there have been two Ian Anderson solo albums released since that last Jethro Tull album 18 years ago. Indeed, the previous Anderson solo album “Homo Erraticus” featured pretty much the same band lineup as that which performs on “The Zealot Gene”. So, why brand it as Tull now? Inevitably, there’s a certain degree of semantics at play here (and corresponding record sales at stake) but likely the recent 50th Anniversary tours of Jethro Tull played a significant role in shifting the identity from Anderson to his better-known namesake. After all, Anderson’s relative likeness has been illustrated on many-a-Tull album cover, so most people do equate him directly with Tull (“Oh by the way, which one’s Jethro”?). As if to cement this decision, Anderson’s actual face is the sole feature of “The Zealot Gene”’s artwork, starkly contrasted in black and white with little grey in between, a deliberate illustration of the theme herein.
Names aside, the question at hand is: does Anderson and company still bring the goods, or is he already by-definition too old to rock and roll? There’s no question that the man can play flute and acoustic guitar as well as ever, and these signature qualities of the band are satisfyingly present throughout. Unless the listener is expecting an unrealistic approximation of 70s & 80s Tull, it’s pretty fair to say the band as a whole delivers. Most of the musicians have played with Anderson for over a decade. This album will mark the last appearance of guitarist Florian Opahle, who is heading on to his own career running a recording studio but recorded the majority of the guitar parts herein before his departure, retaining a sound not far from the classic Martin Barre vibe. While overall the acoustic bias of the new album plays out more convincingly than the rockers, that seems a reasonable direction for a musician in their mid-70s.
Sporting solid melodic songwriting, arrangements and performance, the main shortcoming of the album turns out to be the production. Opening track “Mrs. Tibbets” suffers the worst in this regard, the choice of keyboard patches and the subsequent mix robbing this piece of its potential. Surely this is a demo which has yet to be properly mixed? The subsequent “Jacob’s Tales” brings quick relief, offering a simple acoustic blend of guitar, mandolin, harmonica and vocals, probably completely an Anderson solo piece. The addition of harmonica is marvelous. We’ll take it, gratefully. “Mine Is the Mountain” brings the band back in, opening with mysterious piano in the style of Locomotive Breath’s intro. The clever lyrics offer a commentary on the story of Moses, God and those who profess to follow them in word but not in deed: “But you who ignore these things that are written will define the story your children will read.” Then culminating in Anderson’s wry humor: “For I am the Father, the Power and the Glory and now for God’s sake, leave me alone.” The band mix is much better this time, aside from the delay on Anderson’s vocal which is likely there to convey the words of God but nonetheless results in annoyance. Still, this is a winning song which feels right at home in the Tull catalog as Anderson’s flute takes the lead over an engaging soundscape. The title track fares equally well, an edgy number which brings our polarized world into focus: “Carrying the Zealot gene, right or left no in-between, Beware! Beware! the Zealot gene, make it flame near gasoline.”
Most of the ensemble pieces were actually written and recorded back in 2017 – 2019. After the pandemic caused an extended hiatus and focus on other projects, Anderson finished up the album with several acoustic solo pieces which occasionally include long-distance overdubs from other band members (e.g. bass, accordion, lead guitar). All charming in their own right, the most intriguing of these are the lilting “Where Did Saturday Go?” and the second single “Sad City Sisters”. One listen and we can confirm, “yep, that’s Tull” even though it’s essentially… Anderson. Of the band performances not yet mentioned, “Shoshana Sleeping” and “Barren Beth, Wild Desert John” are most successful in their realization, the former cleverly arranging Anderson’s vocals to maximum effect amidst its infectious riff, while the latter provides more Biblical themes which serve the music well. On the less successful side, “The Betrayal of Joshua Kynde” starts with an enticing hook but comes up short, being the one instance where a more fiery performance from Anderson’s vocals is needed to meet the jagged, driving main theme.
Much has been made about Anderson’s declining vocal abilities over the past decades – especially in a live context – but as far as studio albums go this seems unfairly overblown. Listen to Tull studio albums from each decade and you’ll hear a shift in range but his voice still retains its characteristic tone and charm. In 2000 Anderson settled in with a solid but somewhat less dynamic vocal approach for his wonderful “The Secret Language of Birds” and here 20 years later his voice and delivery doesn’t sound much different. Pretty impressive for a 74 year-old, really. Sure, there’s a drop in his abilities from the “Songs From the Wood” era but he’s still very satisfying. The main criticism of Anderson’s vocals on this album is the excessive use of reverb and delay on some tracks, an unfortunate choice in the production which extends beyond just the vocals to the other instruments at times as well.
All in all “The Zealot Gene” offers a good collection of songs, perhaps not as strong as “Homo Erraticus” but still a respectable outing. A few tracks are marred by patchy, inconsistent production but otherwise Anderson and company are sounding in good form. Whether the brand is “Ian Anderson” or “Jethro Tull” seems to matter little even to the artist (probably more-so to the label) but regardless of what’s in a name, hopefully Anderson will remain too young to die and deliver more of his musical charms in the coming years.
Released by: Inside Out Music
Released on: January 28th, 2022
Genre: Progressive Rock
“The Zealot Gene” Track-listing:
- Mrs. Tibbets
- Jacob’s Tales
- Mine Is The Mountain
- The Zealot Gene
- Shoshana Sleeping
- Sad City Sisters
- Barren Beth, Wild Desert John
- The Betrayal Of Joshua Kynde
- Where Did Saturday Go?
- Three Loves, Three
- In Brief Visitation
- The Fisherman Of Ephesus
Jethro Tull is back. With much of “The Zealot Gene” recorded several years ago, then primed for an early 2021 release only to be delayed yet again due to pandemic circumstances, it’s been a long time coming. Not straying far from 2014’s “Homo Erraticus” (which was attributed to Ian Anderson but features the same band), the new Tull finds Mr. Anderson and company in good form some 50-plus years-on since his first album. Inconsistent production issues aside, this is a welcome return which shows Anderson’s lyrical bite still intact alongside his signature, fiery flute performance. Hopefully this release will foreshadow more to come as the band’s name navigates its sixth decade.