Credit: Inside Out Records
by Noel Oakshot Featured Music Pop Rocks

Jethro Tull — RökFlöte

May 5, 2023

Jethro Tull’s long-awaited return with 2022’s The Zealot Gene — their first album in two decades — was something of a small triumph. It gave the group its highest UK chart performance in 50 years, as well as a lot of surprisingly positive reviews. That Tull has turned out another record of new material just one calendar year later has been met with much surprise — especially since the last time they managed this feat was back in 1980. The content of RökFlöte has also taken listeners off guard, with some forthright strides in unexpected directions — treading hazardous terrain for a legacy act. Drawing upon bandleader Ian Anderson’s distant Scandinavian heritage, the record is a moody concept album where each track loosely revolves around a character from Norse mythology. The record evolved from instrumental recording sessions that set out to foreground the flute as a rock instrument and expanded into a full-fledged Tull record, with a heavier sound and slightly darker mood than its light and playful immediate predecessor. 

In large part, RökFlöte represents a return to the electric hard rock sound of ‘80s Tull, though the album lacks a correlate to the most interesting and eclectic experiments of that decade, unpopular as they were with most of the band’s audience. Sporting a stockier tracklist — with 12 mid-length cuts — it’s the first Jethro Tull record of original material since 1969 to not have a single track longer than 5 minutes. The mid-tempo trudging of these grizzled old rocker tunes is given heft by the powerful and precise rhythm section of bassist Dave Goodier and drummer Scott Hammond, operating seamlessly together now that both have played with Anderson for well over a decade. The way RökFlöte’s atmospheric and palpably digital production hangs thickly around the instrumentation reminds of Anderson’s first forays into digital production with Crest of a Knave, and strikes the crucial balance between live and studio sound better than most late Tull albums.

It can be a little difficult to parse the musical continuity between this incarnation of Jethro Tull and the group’s pre-recording hiatus, given the conspicuous absence of Martin Barre and the somewhat glaring discontinuity between the newer records and the highly idiosyncratic note the band left off on in the ‘90s (one Christmas album aside). The Jethro Tull of RökFlöte really originates both as a collective and an ethos with the 2010s duology of Anderson solo albums Thick as a Brick 2 and Homo Erraticus. These records adopted a retrospective posture, deliberately diving back into the Tull catalog for inspiration, whereas in the band’s original, 20th-century run, each album deliberately sought to differentiate itself from previous efforts, at times even pursuing this to the detriment of their reputation and relationship with audiences. This change in approach has continued through to RökFlöte (as has the lineup behind TAAB2 and HE, with the exception of guitarist Florian Ophale, who left after the recording of The Zealot Gene). Likewise, the playful ransacking of the Tull catalog: with its occasional breaking into spritely Celtic jigs, “Trickster (And the Mistletoe)” sounds like it could have been written for Songs from the Wood. “Allfather” hits an immediately familiar songwriting register, echoing the classic non-album track “Living in the Past” — with some martial folk in the mix too — and “The Feathered Consort” opens circling around and building on a single riff, much in the way that songs from the Aqualung era tended to. 

In the ‘90s, Anderson cited the subtle genre blending epic “Budapest,” from Crest of a Knave, as something of an ideal encapsulation of the ambition of the bandleader’s contemporary songwriting — as opposed to what he termed as the “single brush stroke” simplicity of early records like Aqualung and Stand Up. But the consolidation around shorter, broadly conventional pop tracks suggests a further change in paradigm. Anderson and co. have largely forgone the multi-phase epics for which the group was most known, and just as well; many of the remaining transitional moments here are executed less nimbly than they would have been in days of yore. Ophale’s replacement, Joe Parrish, is a much younger guitarist whose musical focus seems to be all things in the folk-to-prog-to-metal spectrum, and his Youtube videos — performing multi-track guitar renditions of famous classical pieces — are like Glenn Branca meets Tosin Abasi or Misha Mansoor. Parrish’s contemporary rock sensibilities seem to have something to do with the heavier direction and adjacency to European metal charted on RökFlöte, much like Barre’s increased studio contributions influenced the hard rock sound of ‘80s Tull.

Initially, there are some off-putting aspects about RökFlöte — the strained singing from a 75-year-old man who has been sporting vocal damage since 1984 and the weird, spoken-word passages in place of the singing; the slow, chugging default pace the record keeps returning to; the often cold, metallic tinge to tracks that probably should sound warmer — but the record opens up on repeat listens and becomes a cohesive auditory world akin to all good Jethro Tull albums. Anderson’s flute is as sharp as ever. There are slow, sustained builds (like at the start of “Ginnungagap”) that amount to some of the best moments on the album, as do dynamic instrumental passages that come with key and tempo changes, like the interplay of guitar and flute solos on “Wolf Unchained,” which give way to a dizzying, synchronized ascent against a backdrop of swirling keys. The intricacy of the acoustic passages on “The Perfect One” showcases Anderson’s trademark knack for arrangement, while pulsing, 4/4 rocker “The Navigators” is probably the most energetic Tull has been since 1987’s Steel Monkey — with a dark, nautical tone that parallels 1979’s Stormwatch. The opening and closing tracks on RökFlöte also feature a-little-unnerving-at-first-but-ultimately-worthwhile touch of female vocals doing spoken-word passages in Icelandic — the group should embrace this precedent and invite more guests for future recordings, to take some strain off Anderson’s long-suffering vocal chords. 

Thematically, RökFlöte marks a departure not just in its superficial shift from Britannia to the Nordics, but also in its retreat from modernity into mythology. Reaction to modernity had been central to not just the recent continuity from TAAB2 to The Zealot Gene, but also every Jethro Tull album of new material since at least Roots to Branches, and most Tull albums since Heavy Horses. Musically, at the album’s core is a tension between the folk revival sensibilities at the base of Anderson’s songwriting, with heavier rock formulas and instrumentation, a dynamic not unlike that of Parrish’s side project Albion. While few will rate this among the classic Jethro Tull records, it is at least a legitimately novel contribution to their catalog, in which longtime fans of Anderson’s compositions and production will no doubt find something to enjoy. That’s more than can be said for just about any other ‘60s rock group releasing records in the 2020s. RökFlöte is like an awkward, lumbering giant traversing the musical territory charted by past iterations of Jethro Tull — and occasionally wandering off the path. It’s certainly odd and out of place, but there’s something endearing about it. Ultimately, if you’re able to accept the baggage that comes part and parcel, the album just works.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 18.