Veteran musician Ian Anderson comments on right-wing populism with Jethro Tull’s The Zealot Gene

British progressive rock band Jethro Tull have released The Zealot Gene on January 28, the band’s first recording of any new music in over twenty years. With lyrics and music penned by founder and frontman Ian Anderson, the new record is a legitimate addition to the band’s discography, which began in Blackpool (a seaside resort on England’s northwest coast) in playing blues in 1967 and became an internationally successful progressive rock band in the 1970s.

The new album contains a mix of acoustic songs and heavier rock tracks showcasing the eclectic mix of musical styles and influences that are at the heart of Jethro Tull’s sound. Additionally, the lyrics demonstrate Anderson’s affinity for storytelling and commenting on current and historical social phenomena from unique, if not eccentric, points of view.

The Zealot Gene

True to the “concept album” format of progressive rock, The Zealot Gene is made up of twelve songs that reference the biblical text as inspiration for an exploration of human emotions such as compassion, tolerance, loyalty, love, jealousy, greed and hatred.

As Anderson explains in the liner notes, he’s not “a man of faith when it comes to conventional and organized religions”, but Bible verses “have fueled my songwriting” and been the point. starting point to elaborate examples of extreme feelings from different points of view. . Although he usually finds images like photos or paintings to prompt his words of observation, the trigger this time was “immortal words from 1611 [King James Bible] which, to me, immediately conjure up visual images” that can be used to “interpret and vocalize the subject”.

While listeners have sometimes been baffled in the past by Anderson’s occasionally abstruse metaphors and familiar sayings, they will appreciate the backing material in the CD packaging. The lyrics of each song appear with the associated Bible verse and the track notes explain what the songs are about. Listeners can also watch a series of video interviews with Ian Anderson on the band’s YouTube channel where he reviews the creative process, album concept and production process, which was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19.

Ian Anderson in the studio during the recording of The Zealot Gene

Studio work on the album began in 2017 and, due to touring and other project obligations, seven backing tracks were recorded and four tracks were completed before the pandemic hit in early 2020. The rest of the album was produced remotely with members of the band – David Goodier on bass, John O’Hara on keyboards, Florian Opahle and Joe Parrish-James on guitars and Scott Hammond on drums – recording their parts separately from their home studios and sending them to Anderson for final mixing and mastering. Longtime Jethro Tull lead guitarist Martin Barre does not appear on the new album, having left the band for a solo career in 2011.

The title song of The Zealot Gene undoubtedly refers to future American dictator Donald Trump, with the lines, “ The populist with dark appeal / The complacency to hate / What xenophobic alarmists / Deliver on the plate .”

Anderson writes in the track notes, “As song lyrics; this encapsulates, for me, the divisive nature of societal relationships and the extreme opinions that fuel the fires of hatred and prejudice… You may think you know who I may have thought of here but, in reality, there is probably now at least five top dictatorial international figures who could do the trick.

We have, of course, significant problems with the idea that humans are genetically preconditioned for “extremism”, whether in the form of contemporary right-wing populism or in the referenced Bible verse Ezekiel on the slaughter of the idolaters with battle axes in Jerusalem. On the one hand, he wrongly attributes the source of the ideological and political conflict to biology rather than socioeconomic interests.

Current members of Jethro Tull: Scott Hammond, David Goodier, Ian Anderson, John O’Hara and Florian Opahle

However, Anderson appears to be using the “zealot gene” as a way to argue for in-between political moderation and to warn of unintended consequences when social media is used uncritically or becomes an obstacle to political discourse. He writes in the liner notes: “It’s almost as if we have a genetic component that leads us to this sub-intellectual graffiti whose outlet, these days, is dropped by the aerosols of social media.”

While opposing “prejudice, xenophobia and hard-right conservatism”, he also attacks “awakening”, calling it a “fashionable and overworked” point of view that “can too easily stifle the process of direct exchange of opinions.”

The other tracks on the album are less problematic. The opening song, “Mrs. Tibbets,” was inspired by the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:24-28. The song examines the barbaric bombardment of the Japanese city of Hiroshima by the US Air Force on the morning of August 6, 1945. Brigadier General Paul Tibbets flew the heavy bomber, a Boeing B-59 Superfortress named Enola Gay, which he personally named after his mother the day before.

The lyrics describe the rationalizations given to Ms. Tibbets to justify the mass murder: “ Don’t feel bad, they said, about the numbers / Don’t feel bad about the melting heat / Burning flesh, soft death of white blood cells. / And the ground shattered under trembling feet.

The line in the chorus, ” Mrs. Tibbets’ little boy “, makes a double reference to his pilot son and the code name of the five-ton bomb. Little Boy was the first nuclear weapon used in warfare and the first of two atomic bombs dropped on Japan by order of US President Harry S. Truman. Estimates of the number of people killed by US imperialism in the two explosions range from 130,000 to 215,000 people.

Of course, a big part of Jethro Tull’s sound is Anderson’s use of the flute as a rock musical instrument. While he’s not the only artist to do so, he’s the best known and he has an instantly recognizable style. By crafting songs about intense emotion, Anderson shows that the concert flute can be designed to express a variety of feelings and this range is extended by its characteristic multiphonic vocalizations. The impact of the technique is seen in the portrayal of an angry Old Testament God in the track “Mine is the Mountain”.

Another method Anderson uses is to play the flute in unison or in harmony with the electric guitar. It’s done effectively on the opening riff of “The Betrayal of Joshua Kynde,” an allegorical tale of deception among Cold War spies. Other instruments such as harmonica, mandolin, Irish whistle, acoustic guitar and accordion make their appearance on lighter tracks such as “Jacobs Tales”, “Sad City Sisters” and “Three Loves, Three “.

Using Bible verses to express agnosticism or question Christian doctrine is not new to the group. Jethro Tull’s Most Popular Album Scuba diving suit, released in 1971, has sold over three million copies and contains a preamble in the liner notes which is a rewrite of Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning man created God; and in the image of man he created him.

At this moment, Scuba diving suit was banned from radio play in Spain by the fascist regime of Francisco Franco and there were publicized burnings of the record in the United States by some Bible Belt evangelicals. However, the critical ideas of the Christian church in tracks like “My God”, “Hymn 43” and “Wind Up” also mingled with the rebellious moods of young people and contributed to Jethro Tull’s growing global popularity.

Anderson, 74, became Jethro Tull’s sole leader and creative force in 1969 after founding guitarist Mick Abrahams left. Following the release of their first album It was, the two clashed over the band’s artistic direction. Abrahams wanted Jethro Tull to remain a blues-based band and Anderson, influenced by the Beatles sergeant. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, wanted to go in a more experimental direction.

Jethro Tull in Chicago in 1973 [Photo Credit: WikiCommons]

Following the success of Scuba diving suit, Jethro Tull rode a massive wave of progressive rock popularity with bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Yes, and released a studio album every year until 1980. The albums were followed by world tours , with live performances before sold-out crowds. in stadiums on five continents. During these years, Ian Anderson’s antics and stage costumes played straight into progressive rock critics as pretentious and pompous.

Among Jethro Tull’s most notable achievements during these years were two concept albums with 45 minutes of continuous complex music and dense lyrics – Thick as a brick (1972) and A game of passion (1973) – both went to No. 1 on the US charts. While the rock press generally listened to these records, the public embraced them.

Later in the decade the band pursued a folk-rock direction and with wood songs (1977), heavy horses (1978) and storm watch (1979) which mixed ethnic acoustic instruments and Scottish musical themes with heavy electric guitar riffs and rhythms. The lyrics on these records express Anderson’s concerns about industrial society, population growth and dwindling natural resources.

Ian Anderson in Toronto in 1977 [Photo Credit: WikiCommons]

As progressive rock’s popularity faded through the 1980s and beyond, many of the most popular bands were able to carry on by creating new music and/or performing live gigs for their fans. The onset of the pandemic disrupted these cycles, and with most musicians now in their mid to late 70s, they had to find new ways to interact with audiences and figure out what they will be doing in their last years.

With The Zealot gene, Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull have released an engaging album. Whether listeners choose to enjoy the music or engage with the concept elements, the album offers new and old audiences the opportunity to learn more about one of the most thoughtful and significant artists in the time.