Lately, it almost starts feeling like I live in some parallel universe of March 1971 and the present. In March 1971, both Jethro Tull and John Mayall released new albums, Aqualung and Back to the Roots, respectively. Last Friday, January 28, the same thing happened again. While I had known about Mayall’s record The Sun is Shining Down, which I reviewed here yesterday, Jethro Tull’s The Zealot Gene came as a total surprise. Not only is history’s repetition remarkable, but also the fact that both new releases are truly compelling.
The Zealot Gene is Tull’s 22nd studio album and their first new record since The Jethro Tull Christmas Album from September 2003. It also is their first new album of all-new music since J-Tull Dot Com that came in August 1999. Of course, four-fifths of 2022 Tull are different compared to 1971. But the most important original member, Ian Anderson, is still around, and, boy, does he sound great! His vocals and multi-instrumental chops including his distinguished flute-playing remain in mighty shape.
The other members of Tull aren’t exactly newbies either. Joe Parrish (guitar), John O’Hara (piano, keyboards, accordion), David Goodier (bass, double bass) and Scott Hammond (drums, percussion) each are experienced musicians. Except for Parish who became a member in 2020, each has been part of the band’s touring lineup for various years. The album also features Florian Opahle on electric guitar, who played with Tull from 2003 until 2019.
Here’s some additional background on The Zealot Gene from Tull’s website: A record that began to take shape as early as 2017, ‘The Zealot Gene’, in many ways, seeks to defy convention during a time when the business of being a touring and recording artist has never faced more uncertainties. Tull bandleader Ian Anderson holds no reservations about the role for which the mythos and themes of Biblical storytelling played in the lyrical content of the new album, saying:
“While I have a spot of genuine fondness for the pomp and fairytale story-telling of the Holy Book, I still feel the need to question and draw sometimes unholy parallels from the text. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly rear their heads throughout, but are punctuated with elements of love, respect, and tenderness.“
Looking back on the earth-shaking disruption of the Coronavirus pandemic, which ultimately ended the band’s touring plans and hopes of a 2020 release for ‘The Zealot Gene’, Anderson shares, “It was so sudden. Amidst the concerns and warnings of the scientific community and a few more enlightened politicians, we all retreated in disbelief to our homes to wait out the storm.”
I’d say let’s go for some music. Here’s the opener Mrs Tibbets. Like all other tracks on the album, it was written by Anderson. “One of the words that I wrote was ‘retribution,’ which was visited upon the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah by the angry God, Yahweh,” Anderson told Apple Music in discussing some of the tracks in greater detail. “Lot and his wife escaped, but she turned around to look at the destruction behind her and was turned into a pillar of salt, according to biblical tales. That brought up the inevitable comparison with someone turning to face a 2,000-foot air burst above Hiroshima. So I decided to write an analogous song based on the visitation of Little Boy, dropped by the air crew captain Paul Tibbets, son of Enola Gay Tibbets.” Check out that cool sound!
The title track is “about the polarization of opinion-making in contemporary society, largely through social media, but also through—quite rightly in a democratic world—freedom of speech, the right to express your opinion,” Anderson explained to Apple Music. “But these days that opinion reaches further and faster and in more forcible terms as a result of social media—and can be used in a way that is often very hurtful, very cruel, very socially divisive.” Here’s the official video – reminds me a bit of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Shoshana Sleeping “is a slightly erotic observation of the human form, but in a respectful and hands-off kind of a way,” Anderson noted. “Hopefully you would get the impression in the lyrics that the person singing the song is already in some kind of a relationship with the person that he’s observing sleeping. In terms of biblical references, I read some verses from the Song of Solomon. In the original text, sometimes it takes on a pretty macho and unpleasant form—the biblical format is not terribly woke. Nonetheless, there are parts of the Song of Solomon which are very moving and spiritually generous.” Once again, an interesting official video.
Where Did Saturday Go? [this is also what I’m often asking myself once Monday hits – CMM] is one of the acoustic-focused tunes. “Again, it could be seen as a reference to waking up and not being able to remember what you did on a weekend,” Anderson said. “But there’s obviously the reference of the crucifixion of Jesus, and the Saturday following Good Friday—before Easter Sunday, the resurrection day. In this story, Saturday is very rarely mentioned. And in this 24-hour period you have to wonder what was happening in the minds of those followers of Jesus after his death but before his resurrection. But it’s never discussed to any degree in the Bible, so I’m just pondering that notion of a missing day in the narrative of Jesus.”
Let’s do one more: The closer The Fisherman of Ephesus. “In that particular song I do stay more closely to the biblical stories of what happened to the disciples of Jesus…And so the song is about guilt survival, something I know from talking to veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, who lost their buddies, and who were scarred for life as a result of surviving when others around them died. And that happens, obviously, in car crashes, plane crashes, and probably in terms of COVID mortalities…So guilt survival is applicable right across the board. And that’s essentially the message of the song.”
I’ve heard a good deal of Jethro Tull songs, including those that are on the great 1985 compilation Original Masters, which spans the band’s first nine albums. I’ve also listened to select records like Aqualung and Thick as a Brick. This certainly doesn’t make me a Tull expert. But based on what I’ve heard, I feel confident enough to say this new album really sounds like Tull, sometimes reminding me of Aqualung. And that’s not only because of that album’s biblical references, though I will add The Zealot Gene doesn’t have obvious gems like Hymn 43 or Locomotive Breath. Still, it’s a pretty solid record. If you dig Tull, I see no reason why you wouldn’t like it.
The Zealot Gene appears on Inside Out Music, a German independent label focused on progressive rock and progressive metal. In addition to being available on streaming platforms, the album is offered in additional formats, including a special edition digipak CD, a gatefold 2LP+CD+LP-booklet, a limited 2CD+Blu-ray artbook and a limited deluxe 3LP+2CD+Blu-ray artbook.
Both artbook editions feature a second CD of demos and initial ideas, plus extended liner notes and an interview with Ian Anderson undertaken by Tim Bowness (no-man). Jeez – the days when artists simply issued their new albums on vinyl are definitely over!
Sources: Wikipedia; Jethro Tull website; Apple Music; Discogs; YouTube; Spotify