“The Zealot Gene”
Special Edition CD Digipak / Ltd. Deluxe 2CD+Blu-ray Artbook / Ltd. Deluxe 3LP+2CD+Blu-ray Artbook / Gatefold 2LP+CD & LP-Booklet / Digital Album
Release Date: January 28th, 2022
Every once in a while – maybe every five years – Ian Anderson releases a new album. Sometimes as Jethro Tull, sometimes as a solo album. Long gone are the days when it was an annual occurrence, as it was for most bands, back in the 1970s.
The touring schedules were demanding back then too but still, the band found the time to take a month or two in the studio to follow the creative path and dish out another goody to the faithful followers. But that frenetic writing and recording activity allowed for no down time, no time for recharging batteries or enjoying family life and began to prove less than satisfactory for the well-being and complex relationships of the musicians.
So things slowed down as far as studio work was concerned and touring the world’s stages proved to be both the antidote to boredom and the opportunity to reach new audiences in countries previously untravelled.
The new album – whenever it turned out to be finally completed and ready for unveiling – became more of a rarity but continued to produce varied and non-conformist music. Never a one for clinging to a formula, Ian Anderson found new horizons and new topics for musical sorties which sometimes confounded expectations as the fans grew older and more staid, perhaps, in their musical taste. Another Aqualung, Another Thick As A Brick, became the oft-repeated clarion cry. But clocks are for turning forward, not back. Amongst the acoustic and orchestral forays, Anderson still visited the fertile but treacherous ground of the concept album and the progressive rock genre. The 2012 TAAB2 album was, in many ways, a far cry from its 1972 cousin. Homo Erraticus pushed the boundaries of conceptual subject material even further in 2014. The 2017 Jethro Tull String Quartets album ticked a few boxes and and notched up another bucket list project release.
But by the release of that record, Ian had already begun work on a new set of material and the band had recorded the first seven backing tracks for the as-yet-untitled new work before embarking on a series of tours which filled the year planners for a while.
Anderson recounts: “I had begun, as I often do, at 09.00 on January the 1st to invite the muse to visit and together drum up some simple demos of initial ideas. In the afternoon and evening, I would typically work on lyrics and drag the jigsaw puzzle into something resembling a complete picture.”
Writing and editing lyrics on a computer and recording the simple demos on an iPhone was a big step sideways from the school note pads and pencils of the previous decades. But the benefit was clear: “I constantly updated and refined the lyrics, melodies and harmonies to provide for the band a solid starting point for their own contributions of instrument music parts and the overall arrangements. The simple demos were replaced by slightly more sophisticated versions, set in the final keys and tempos.”
Firing off the results by email to the band in good time for them to learn and develop the material meant they could gather round the rehearsal room campfire and pretty much play through the essence of the songs as if they were live stage performances. And so, the first and greater half of the album was well under way and a few songs actually finished and rough-mixed by the time when, after months of tours, Anderson could look to the completion of the last five songs towards the end of 2019 and restart the recording process again with the more acoustic material.
And then the world as we knew it collapsed. By January of 2020, the news of the growing Coronavirus pandemic was filling the news-waves. Anderson immediately set about purchasing hand wipes, gels, masks and prepared for an unsteady touring plan in the opening months of the year. Only two shows were to be completed before the band arrived in Finland for a tour, only to be informed as they checked into their Helsinki hotel, that the Finnish Government had cancelled all public gatherings and the concert touring Titanic had met its watery doom. “It was so sudden,” Anderson recalls. “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.” So began the endless rounds of postponements and cancellations. The end of a full year’s work in planning and contracting the many shows intended for 2020.
A perfect time to complete the unfinished album? Anderson says,”The despair and anger at having to accept that professional life had been stolen from us meant that, for me at least, that a new album release hardly seemed worth the effort until we could get back together in the studio and wrap up the final songs in the traditional way.”
So a few other projects beckoned by way of replacement. The Jethro Tull biography, The Ballad Of Jethro Tull and then the collected lyrics book, Silent Singing, took up much Anderson’s time over the next months until, realising that the virus was here to stay for a good long while, he decided to record the final songs alone and complete the project for a 2021 release. Some of the band were able to contribute from afar by sending in their musical parts, individually recorded, to be incorporated into the final mix.
The album artwork was designed and developed and a new record deal was negotiated with the old- school music aficionados at InsideOut Music, until another bombshell landed in the back yard. The pressing and manufacturing time for vinyl LPs had risen from the agonising twelve weeks back in 2014 to around six months during the pandemic shutdown and so a release before early 2022 was now nigh on impossible.
So, The Zealot Gene, as it was now titled, was forced to wait, like a maturing whisky, for a further period of show cancellations and disappointments until now.
Probably the longest album in the making – certainly for Tull – it sits quietly in the pantheon of Tull catalogue awaiting its fate. A damp squib? A triumphant return to the heady days of the 70s? Could turn out to be somewhere in between, ponders Anderson. “I remember the completion of the Aqualung album when, after a long night completing the final mixes, I sat down to a bleary-eyed cafe breakfast with John Evan, the keyboard player. What do you think? Will people go for it, we nervously asked each other? Not sure, we both replied….”
The world – even the microscopic world of Tull fans – is hardly agog at the prospect of another difficult, concept-ridden album of tricky material: especially one based on the interpretation and expansion of notions deriving from the chapters and verses of The Bible. Oh, no! He’s gone all religious on us, finally, the legions moan and bewail! Well, actually, no. “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 which glorify the New Testament, especially. Some Christian fanatics will feel I have tweaked their tails. The secular and the unbelieving will think I
am reborn as an irksome proselytiser of the faith. And some will, hopefully, just enjoy the music and not scrutinise too closely.”
It didn’t ultimately harm Tull’s reputation back in 1971 when a few of their songs touching upon religious teaching emerged to some controversy. But these days, the polarised views and angry opinions of the many so easily drown the moderate voices of the few. That subject is the very substance of the album. Anderson, as always, has the last word: “Music and the Arts, in general, surely must have the right to question and examine all topics as long as done sensitively and with respect. Whether in Shakespeare’s day or in the knives-drawn world of social media, there has to be a place for commentary and interpretation. But, it’s all in the rendition. I am a professional fence-sitter, clad in interminable shades of grey, as the album title track suggests. But, sitting on the fence is a safer place to be and enjoys a great view. And, if you have to jump to one side or the other, it is with the benefit of due consideration.” Hopefully, Tull fans will think on it and come to the same conclusion.