The band Jethro Tull has always seen musicians come and go, like so many of its contemporaries have. There have been great upheavals in the past, notably when the band switched from being somewhat of a Blues band to something more progressive around 1969-1970, and moved through time seemingly alternating between progressive and folk rock. Indeed, Jethro Tull appeared to be defunct around 2012 when it was announced that in future there would be two bands, one formed around long-time guitarist Martin Barre called, not surprisingly, The Martin Barre Band and the other coalescing around vocalist, flautist and chief song-writer Ian Anderson, imaginatively called The Ian Anderson Band. Many fans saw this as some kind of great schism and both bands went on their merry ways. Ian Anderson released some new solo studio albums, but in 2019 it was announced that he and Jethro Tull would undertake a tour. This, though, was not a reconvening of the old band but a new stage of the band. It was essentially Ian Anderson’s band morphed into a new Jethro Tull. The band then released what is Jethro Tull’s twenty-second studio album (The Zealot Gene) in 2022. RökFlöte, then, is the band’s twenty-third studio album, released a little over a year after its predecessor, which is an express adventure for a band whose previous studio album release The Zealot Gene was back in 2003, when it was released as the The Jethro Tull Christmas Album.
This is a strong release for the band. For the most part, the album centres around the characters, roles, and principal gods in Norse Paganism, as well as Rock Flute. The original idea was to create an album of mostly instrumental music, emphasising the flute role, but Ian Anderson became increasingly enamoured with the phrase Ragnarök, with “rök” meaning direction, destiny, or course. It was a simple step then to change “flute” into “Flöte”. Part of Ian’s inspiration for the album came from investigating the Scandinavian origins of his family name. As Ian explains: “As an Anderson born in Scotland, I have often wondered as to my possible Scandinavian ancestry, whether of Norwegian, Swedish or Danish descent. The very common Andersson and Andersen are amongst the different spellings of the name (son of Andrew) depending on which part of Scandinavia we are talking about”.
Ian found out much about the origins of the Norse people, their meanderings through Europe before they settled in Scandinavia, from where they would continue their peregrinations both to Britain and elsewhere. He holds a fascination for the culture and history of those Viking nations who spread into northern Scotland and the Western Isles, as well as in Ireland and eastern England. In settling to write this material, Ian tried to learn more about some of the pre-Christian religious beliefs of these peoples and endeavoured to relate those notions to their even earlier origins far, far to the east. This led through a fascinating trail of animistic cave paintings to Vedic mythology, and from the polytheistic faiths of Asia and the Greek and Roman eras. These deities and their avatars, often with similar names and recurring roles and characters, spread westwards through the Slavic regions, to be incorporated into Germanic belief systems and finally into the Scandinavian countries, where they flourished until Christianity largely displaced them from the 11th Century onwards. For the Scandinavians such tales would form the basis of the Sagas, and would go on to inspire many others besides Ian, Richard Wagner and JRR Tolkein amongst them.
Ian is at pains to clarify his thoughts here, given that the religious or non-religious aspect of his music has seemed to return to him over the years, from misinterpretations of material on Aqualung and occasional later outbreaks. “I am not here to promote the old Norse religion or, indeed, any religion. My own preference is for the ultimate esotericism of Panentheism. I see no need for imaginary man-made visual representations of God. No need for symbols, idols, icons, relics and the ritual of prayer to an interventionist god. Problem is, it might make for rather a dull rock music album….” he states
There are twelve songs presented on the album which take on the characters and roles of some principal gods of the old Norse paganism. Each set of lyrics was written in the form of a lyric poem, with a somewhat more technical aspect to them, with the first six stanzas of either Trochaic Octameter or, arguably, twelve stanzas of Iambic Tetrameter to describe the settings, identities and personalities of the different gods. The final four stanzas of each song except the first and last tracks, are a different personalised interpretation of those subjects in a more contemporary setting.
Such weighty intent never actually overwhelms the music itself though, which is an update on the Jethro Tull sound. There is great finesse within the song-writing and the presentation of the music. Ian has surrounded himself with some highly skilled musicians in this iteration of Jethro Tull and they all perform excellently. It is very much a collective success in that respect. Much has been commented on Ian Anderson’s voice in recent years, and on this release, it is not prime-time Anderson vocally, but it wouldn’t be. He’s not the same, not being a young man any more. He adopts a rhythmically spoken narration at times which actually suits the songs quite well. When he does sing there is the occasional break in the voice now and again, a fragility that seems quite apt within the context of the songs. The first and last songs’ vocals are spoken in old Icelandic by Reykjavik actress, singer, violinist and musical guest Unnur Birna. They are taken from one of the translations of the Poetic Edda compiled from the 13th century Codex Regius, a collection of Old Norse poems. Ian’s flute playing remains excellent, and there are some wonderfully lyrical moments from the instrument throughout the album, as on the track Wolf Unchained. There are no songs of any great length on the album, they mostly fall in the three-to-five-minute range. But there is a seamless momentum to the tracks as a whole and without flowing into one another a feeling of something of more epic proportions is achieved. The diversity and colourings within the music add to sense of something of greater substance. The heroical nature of the subject matter never becomes grandiose nor overblown. It is an atmospheric, thoughtful release.
The album has been brilliantly produced by Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord, who has created a 5.1 Surround Sound and also an alternate stereo version of the album, which is available in multiple formats: a limited edition deluxe dark red 2LP and 2CD and Blu-ray artbook which includes 2 art-prints; a limited deluxe 2CD and Blu-ray Artbook; a special edition CD Digipak; a gatefold 180g LP+LP-booklet; and a Digital Album. The cover painting for the album refers to pre-history cave paintings, with the more slightly impish flautist adopting a one-legged flute playing stance familiar to Jethro Tull fans.
This is a very enjoyable album from Jethro Tull, which harks back to older albums in style and feel, but doesn’t over dwell on them nor attempt to copy them. There is a definite primal air created by the music and the intonations of Unnur Birna, but there is a combination of the dramatic and the impish as the songs require. Ian’s song-writings skills have not diminished with the years, and being surrounded with high quality musicians is always going to be an incredible bonus. The whole package has the feel of quality. Ian playfully comments; “The title of this offering went through a little change or two along the way. I started with the idea of a predominantly instrumental album for rock flute – as in rock music. When the subject material of the album presented itself, I was drawn to the term Ragnarök from Norse mythology – their version of apocalyptic end times or Biblical Armageddon. The ‘final showdown’ scenario is ubiquitous and inherent in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, for example. Ragnarök translates as ‘destiny of the Gods’, the rök part meaning destiny, course, direction. With umlaut firmly in place, courtesy of the Germanic origins of Old Norse, 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.”
4. The Feathered Consort
5. Hammer On Hammer
6. Wolf Unchained
7. The Perfect One
8. Trickster (And The Mistletoe)
10. The Navigators
11. Guardian’s Watch
Ian Anderson – concert and alto flutes, flute d’amour, Irish whistle and vocals
David Goodier – bass
John O’Hara – piano, keyboards, Hammond organ
Scott Hammond – drums
Joe Parrish-James – electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin
Guest: Unnur Birna – vocals, violin
Release date: 21st April, 2023
Label: InsideOut Music
Ltd Deluxe Dark Red 2LP+2CD+Blu-ray Artbook incl. 2 x art-prints
Ltd Deluxe 2CD+Blu-ray Artbook
Special Edition CD Digipak
Gatefold 180g LP+LP-booklet
You can view a video for the single edit of The Navigators here: https://youtu.be/HUTtSU_6y1c
There is a video for Ginnungagap here: https://youtu.be/KoBAD-TRxYA
You can pre-order now here: https://jethrotullband.lnk.to/RokFlote