Ian Anderson appears to be on rather a creative kick lately, with a second new studio album from Jethro Tull, RökFlöte, in just over a year, after a gap of over 20 years since their late-’90s albums (aside from the curious yuletide outing in 2003). 2022’s The Zealot Gene focused on the human condition, with the thread of the Holy Bible running through it (alongside the odd pop at Donald Trump) and was an unexpectedly strong return for Jethro Tull. On this latest release, Ian Anderson focuses on his personalised, idiosyncratic reflections on his Viking roots and Norse mythology in RökFlöte.
Ian Anderson has shared that he originally intended to record a mainly instrumental album based on rock flute playing, but as he delved into the subject matter the idea developed into a full rock and vocal album with twelve songs based on the characters and stories of some of the principle Norse Gods. He was drawn to this theme due to his interest in his own heritage, discovering that his paternal DNA originated in the Balkans and then apparently his ‘tribe’ migrated in Neolithic times through Western Europe and Scandinavia. The Viking raids of old into Britain brought their blood line into Anderson’s native Scotland, and the Jethro Tull man used that notion as inspiration for his latest release. The classic, unmistakable tones of Anderson’s flute do seem strangely evocative of tales of Norse mythology. Of course, Anderson cannot resist giving some of these songs a more modern twist lyrically to give them added relevance to this day and age.
The title RökFlöte is a typical Ian Anderson play on words with the ‘Rok’ evoking connections with the apocalyptic battle of Norse mythology, Ragnarök, alongside the more obvious pun of ‘Rock’ music. The Flöte is simply German for ‘flute’, thus Anderson has his ‘Rock Flute’ album, and it has to be said that his flute playing is fluid and entertaining throughout. One of the most outstanding examples of Anderson’s flute skills is on the flowing Ginnungagap, based on the Norse Creation myth, which bowls along with some fine ensemble playing from the rest of the band. The album starts more atmospherically on Voluspo, featuring the evocative spoken Icelandic vocals of Unnur Birna, taken from the Tenth Century Icelandic verse The Poetic Edda (or ‘The Lay of the Gods’) about an ancient wise woman’s ancient prophecies. Anderson is clearly fascinated with his source material as the English verses on this opening song are directly taken from a translation of that ancient poem. His delicate flute takes up the piece after Unnur Birna’s striking intonations before Joe Parrish crunches in with grinding guitars threaded through with flute lines. Ian Anderson is now 75 years old and his voice has inevitably changed as he has grown older, so he rather wisely adopts a restrained virtually spoken singing style which works well on some of the songs. However, as the name of the album implies, the star of this album is not Anderson’s voice but his consistently excellent flute playing, particularly the bird-like flights on The Feathered Consort, about the Norse Goddess Freyja, or the Celtic imbued whistle-like playing on the mischievous Loki inspired Trickster (And the Mistletoe). This is a particular highlight which commences with a martial jig of intertwining flute and guitar, which rollocks along in a rather stirring manner. The flute and guitar interchange dramatically, telling the story of Loki’s trickery in getting Hoar to shoot an arrow made of mistletoe wood at Balder, son of Odin, whom he thought was invulnerable. Hoar was unaware that Balder’s ‘Kryptonite’, so to speak, was the lowly mistletoe. Scott Hammond excels on drums on this reeling jig of a song, interspersed with some nifty guitar breaks from Parrish.
However, this piece also includes what may feel like – for some – rather a flaw in the album. At just three minutes (nearly all the songs are between 3 and 5 minutes) this is a song which seems to be getting somewhere interesting… and then it just ends. This happens repeatedly on an album which seem to not develop as perhaps some Jethro Tull songs may have done in the past. This may be related to the lyrical format chosen by Ian Anderson, basing the words on lyric poems of 12 stanzas of Iambic Tetrameter about the settings, identities and personalities of the different Gods. Most of the songs follow that setting with the final four stanzas interpreting these subjects in rather more contemporary modes, such as the classroom clown “throwing paper darts, blot paper balls” toward the end of Trickster (And the Mistletoe). It may work as a poetic device, but some Tull fans will be yearning for some more characteristically expansive excursions at times. The Perfect One and Allfather, based on the God Odin, are particularly unengaging and underdeveloped pieces.
In contrast, songs like Wolf Unchained and The Navigators are far more involving, filled with stirring riffs, memorable melodies, great playing and storytelling. They are not even that long songs, but they pack enough into their 4 to 5 minutes to satisfy the listener – length not always being a guarantee of satisfaction (or so I may have heard!). Wolf Unchained features a chugging guitar full of menace and some growling vocals reminiscent of Anderson’s earlier days as he clearly gets his teeth into this dramatic tale of the wolf Fenrir, son of Loki and the giantess Angerboda. Cascades of guitar and flute carry the narrative along in a rather thrilling way, imaginatively evoking the imagery of a mythical wolf. Similarly, The Navigators instantly pulls you into the story, with its Morse code-like flute motif, about Njord, the Norse God of wealth, fertility, the sea and sea-faring. John O’Hara features on keyboards, particularly some swirling synth runs. Anderson and Parrish intertwine effectively again, supported solidly by David Goodier on bass and Hammond’s precise drumming… you can really hear the sea raging in the music.
Jethro Tull show a rather more pastoral style with a delicate flute and piano on the gentle intro to Cornucopia, a welcome calming after the turbulent Trickster…. Similarly, Guardian’s Watch commences with an almost Regency style as a lilting flute opening flows over a harpsichord-like keyboard. Guardian’s Watch then goes in a rather more forceful direction, focusing on the ‘Warden Spirit’, Voror, seemingly a Norse Guardian Angel. Anderson brings it up to a more recent era with the closing stanzas portraying the R.A.F. Spitfire pilots of World War Two as ‘Virgin guardians of the sky’.
The album finishes with a return to the Tenth Century minstrel poems of the Poetic Edda, yet again showcasing the evocative Icelandic vocals of Unnur Birna, this time initially in a rather more strident rock setting. Anderson takes us to the Meeting Place of the Gods, and the piece eerily ends with the album going full circle in a return to the strange ringing sounds which began the opener, Voluspa.
Jethro Tull now appear to be Ian Anderson and whomever he assembles around him to form a band, with stalwarts like Martin Barre long since gone… but it has been like that for years with virtually no difference between what is regarded as ‘Jethro Tull’ or Ian Anderson solo outings. ‘Jethro Tull’ and ‘Ian Anderson’ are now indivisible, and as long as Anderson is fronting a band with his distinctive husky rural vocals and his sparkling flute playing, the Jethro Tull trademark is unmistakable. In truth, RökFlöte will not win over many new listeners to Jethro Tull, but I doubt that bothers Mr Anderson after 55 years in the music business! RökFlöte is definitely full of interesting and engaging songs, steeped in undeniably Jethro Tull style, which will please their many fans. To still be writing and playing with such skill and energy at his venerable age is remarkable – definitely Not Too Old to Rock and Roll, and thankfully still too young to die. Jethro Tull roll on.
01. Voluspo (3:42)
02. Ginnungagap (3:48)
03. Allfather (2:44)
04. The Feathered Consort (3:37)
05. Hammer on Hammer (3:09)
06. Wolf Unchained (4:58)
07. The Perfect One (3:49)
08. Trickster (And the Mistletoe) (3:00)
09. Cornucopia (4:26)
10. The Navigators (4:26)
11. Guardian’s Watch (3:28)
12. Ithavoll (3:53)
Total Time – 45:20
Ian Anderson – Lead Vocals, Whistles, Flute
John O’Hara – Piano, Keyboards, Accordion
Joe Parrish – Guitars, Mandolin
Scott Hammond – Drums
David Goodier – Bass Guitar
Unnur Birna – Spoken Icelandic Vocals (tracks 1 & 12)
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 21st April 2023
– This Was (1968)
– Stand Up (1969)
– Benefit (1970
– Aqualung (1971)
– Thick as a Brick (1972)
– A Passion Play (1973)
– War Child (1974)
– Minstrel in the Gallery (1975)
– Too Old to Rock’n’Roll, Too Young to Die (1976)
– Somgs from the Wood (1977)
– Heavy Horses (1978)
– Stormwatch (1979)
– ‘A’ (1980)
– The Broadsword and the Beast (1982)
– Under Wraps (1984)
– Crest of a Knave (1987)
– Rock Island (1989)
– Catfish Rising (1991)
– Roots to Branches (1995)
– J-Tull Dot Com (1999)
– The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (2003)
– The Zealot Gene (2022)
– RökFlöte (2023)