Jethro Tull – RökFlöte (Album Review)

Review of the new album from Jethro Tull – ‘RökFlöte’

By Nick Tate

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Jethro Tull’s new album “RökFlöte” cannot — and should not — be compared to “Aqualung” or anything else Ian Anderson & Co. produced during the band’s 1970s heyday. Secondly, there’s no point in noting Anderson’s once-rich baritone is a shadow-whisper of its former self, as age, tobacco use and lung disease have all taken a toll. Finally, let’s set aside the inevitable debate over whether this is a proper Tull album or another Anderson solo with some talented hired hands. Tull has had 3 dozen members in 5 decades and always been whomever Anderson has chosen to play with — as band leader, singer, songwriter, guitarist and flutist — and “RökFlöte” is no exception.

Now with all of that said, here’s what you need to know about “RökFlöte”:

For Tull fans, the news is very good. This one’s a keeper — a must-own album that ranks among the best of Tull’s recordings since the band won its lone Grammy in 1989 for “Crest of a Knave.” What’s more, “RökFlöte” isn’t just for those who’ve been on the Tull Train since the late 1960s. Newbies who’ve never heard the band before and even casual fans of English prog will find much to like on the 12 tracks here.

It is that rare album that manages to sound both fresh and familiar. Anderson’s distinctive flute and vocals are (as ever) front and center in the mix. Collectively, it showcases Tull’s unique mix of folk, rock, prog, jazz, acoustic and classical music. Turn-on-a-dime changes in key, style and tempo keep things interesting from start to finish. And Anderson’s clever lyrics — delivered in half-sung, half-spoken fashion — remain among the most intricate and novel-esque of any artist in the game today. But “RökFlöte,” the band’s 23rd studio album, brings something new to the Tull canon: A lyrical focus on old Norse mythology that gives the tracks a strange otherworldly quality.

Of course, Tull has always paid homage to earlier styles of music — principally British and European folk and classical motifs. After a brief stint as a heavy jazz-blues outfit in the late 1960s, Tull went on to incorporate British Isles folk, Elizabethan prog, symphonic rock, heavy metal, fusion and even world beat into its signature sound. As a result, Tull’s music drew from 1,000 years of old- and new-world styles. Over the decades, albums have featured everything from lounge-jazz flute pieces to Bach-inspired etudes, Renaissance madrigals, acoustic love songs (replete with descant recorders and bodhrán drum fills), hard-rock rave ups and proggy synthesizer-driven instrumental workouts.

“RökFlöte” expands that dynamic mix, dipping even further back in time to draw inspiration from the Vikings to deliver songs that have an ancient-yet-timeless feel. The dozen tracks here are based on the characters and roles of some of the principle gods of old Norse paganism, all written in the form of a lyric poem. But this isn’t some Spin̈al Tap-ish gimmick. The first and last tracks on “RökFlöte” feature spoken word passages in old Icelandic by Reykjavik actress, singer, violinist and guesting musician Unnur Birna taken from the “Poetic Edda” compiled from the 13th century “Codex Regius.”

Heady? You bet.

A daring risk even for prog audiences? No doubt.

But does it work? In a word: Yes.

The album opens with “Voluspo,” with spoken word passages from Birna (in Icelandic) and Anderson (in English) framing a haunting jazzy flute-driven instrumental that alternates between 7/4 and 3/4 time. It’s a darkly beautiful track that sets the stage for what’s to come. Up next are 3 rockier pieces that would have fit neatly on 1995’s “Roots to Branches” — the propulsive “Ginnungagap,” the rollicking “Allfather” (featuring a jaw-droppingly beautiful twin-flute intro in 10/8 time) and “The Feathered Consort,” which plays like a Renaissance madrigal updated for the 21st century.

The best tracks on the album — “Hammer On Hammer,” “The Perfect One” and “Wolf Unchained” — sound most like vintage Tull. All three feature new guitarist Joe Parrish-James gamely duetting with Anderson on flute in ways that recall longtime Tull guitarist Martin Barre (who parted ways with his old boss a decade ago). Throughout, he delivers tasty guitar leads over sturdy musical foundations laid down by bassist David Goodier, keyboardist John O’Hara (both with Tull since the early 2000s) and drummer Scott Hammond (2010).

A side note: While he is a talented axe man, it must be said that Parrish-James succeeds mostly because his fretwork on these three tracks closely approximates the charging blues-rock vivacity of Barre (whose magic touch is deeply missed here). Also worth noting: “Wolf Unchained” showcases what ranks among Anderson’s most stirring chortled-flute solos and is the only song ever written to feature lyrics that reference the shepherd-dog breeds tervueren, malinois and groenendael (something only the old gallery minstrel could pull off).

Rounding out the album, “RökFlöte” also features the sprightly Irish jig “Trickster (And The Mistletoe),” the heavy prog-metal anthem “The Navigators,” the lush pastoral ballad “Cornucopia,” which echoes the rural vibe of 1977’s “Songs From the Wood,” and two baroque-and-roll rockers “The Guardians” and album closer “Ithavololl”. In the run-up to the album’s release, Anderson said the original idea was to produce a “predominantly instrumental album for rock flute — as in rock music.” But in writing the music, he was drawn to the myths and legends of the Vikings — returning to the wellspring that produced “Cold Wind to Valhalla” on 1975’s classic “Minstrel in the Gallery” album.

“I have always held a fascination for the culture and history of those Viking nations who sowed their seed in northern Scotland and its Western Isles, as well as in Ireland and eastern England,” Anderson said. “In setting out to write this material, I tried to learn more about some of the pre-Christian religious beliefs of these visitors to our shores and to relate those notions to their even earlier origins far, far to the east.

“I was drawn to the term Ragnarök from Norse mythology — their version of apocalyptic end times or Biblical Armageddon… Ragnarök translates as ‘destiny of the Gods,’ the rök part meaning destiny course, direction… Flute became Flöte in keeping with the spelling. With me so far? I just can’t miss the glorious opportunity for a good and legitimate umlaut.”

At 75, Anderson’s tongue clearly remains firmly planted in cheek. Yet he is obviously still quite serious about the music he continues to produce. On “RökFlöte,” the wild-eyed, one-legged pied piper of prog manages to break ground when he could easily rest on his considerable laurels by performing “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath” to fans who wouldn’t care a whit if he never produced a single piece of new music.

All of which is to say: His voice may be diminished from what it once was, but Anderson’s flute playing and musical vision are as strong as ever. With “RökFlöte,” he demonstrates an old dog can indeed learn some new tricks, producing an album that greatly expands the Tull canon and ranks among the band’s best in decades.

And we’re all the better for it.

Released on April 21st, 2023 on InsideOutMusic

1. Voluspo (3:42)
2. Ginnungagap (3:48)
3. Allfather (2:44)
4. The Feathered Consort (3:37)
5. Hammer on Hammer (3:09)
6. Wolf Unchained (4:58)
7. The Perfect One (3:49)
8. Trickster (and the Mistletoe) (3:00)
9. Cornucopia (3:51)
10. The Navigators (4:26)
11. Guardian’s Watch (3:28)
12. Ithavoll (3:53)

Total Time 44:25

Line-up / Musicians
Ian Anderson / flute, acoustic guitar, harmonica, vocals
Joe Parrish-James / guitar
Scott Hammond / drums
John O’Hara / keyboards
David Goodier / bass

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