Band: Jethro Tull | Album:The Zealot Gene | Genre: Hard rock, Progressive rock (I guess) | Year: 2022
From: Blackpool, UK | Label: Inside Out Music
After the better part of two months of writing nothing, I’m back! The first half of January was all my best-of-2021 stuff, after which things got really busy at work, and then Pokémon Legends: Arceus came out (that took up and continues to take up a lot of my free time). But anyway, you don’t come here for my personal goings-on; you come here for reviews of albums that came out several months ago in an unpopular music genre!
For the record, I was actually pretty quick with covering this one. Jethro Tull has put out their first album since 2003! (Though their Bandcamp seems to ignore their 2003 release, The Jethro Tull Christmas Album, as it states this is their first album in “over two decades,” which signals that Ian Anderson considers 1999’s Dot Com to be the last proper Tull album.)
Except, is this really a Jethro Tull album? It has the same lineup of musicians as Ian Anderson’s most recent solo work, and guitarist Martin Barre is absent from a Tull release for the first time since 1968. This sounds like an Ian Anderson solo record. There’s usually a certain vibe to a Tull release, and this release is clearly lacking that spark.
My first reaction to The Zealot Gene was intensely negative. I really disliked it. The production is thin and lifeless; the songs hit me as uninspired; and the whole experience struck me as an unnecessary, unforced error. Who was clamoring for a new JT album at this point? On subsequent listens, my opinion on it has softened, and there are some decent moments here, but it’s still not a great record.
This is also probably the worst, ugliest album cover in the band’s long history. (War Child is a close second.) Ian Anderson has a long history on Jethro Tull album covers, but they’ve usually been visually striking. This album cover is harsh and austere, and the music does not match the visual at all. I could see this monochrome image working well for something in post-rock or minimal electronica, but not retro hard rock.
As I stated in my Jethro Tull Deep Dive, Tull at their worst has always been competent–if dull and generic–hard rock. They’ve never plumbed depths of the mind-numbing inanity of Yes’s Open Your Eyes or the grueling anemia of Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut. The Zealot Gene firmly stays in Jethro Tull’s particular lane of bad music. It’s comparable to something like Rock Island, Catfish Rising, or Dot Com (though I have a weird personal soft spot for the latter).
The best songs on The Zealot Gene are where the band most eagerly leans into folk rock, and I often get flashes of Roots to Branches in these moments. “Mrs. Tibbets” is one such example. Even this song has issues, though (as do similar tracks). For all the nice flute and acoustic guitar parts, the synth tones sound weirdly dated, and everything else generally sounds passionless. Anderson’s voice has been rather weak ever since his throat surgery in the mid-1980s, but he had learned to work with it. On this album, it’s a significant step backward, though much can probably be chalked up to age.
“Jacob’s Tale” is a decent acoustic track with some unexpected but nice harmonica, and “Mine Is the Mountain” has some great interplay between the flute and piano. There are a few other alright songs on the album, but none of them are without major issues.
Most of the album is simply unremarkable. It’s bland hard rock with weak vocals. The guitar is especially unimpressive. Martin Barre has a unique playing style which I’ve never heard properly imitated, and he often utilized an inventive array of unusual tones. The guitarist here sounds like generic hard rock guitarist #12,841. There’s no soul to it, and there’s nothing which will grab your attention.
Despite my overall warming to this album over repeated listens, I still do not like the production. It is passable during quieter acoustic passages, but harder-rocking moments fall catastrophically flat.
I’m sticking with my initial assessment of The Zealot Gene being an unnecessary, unforced error. Tull had not released any new studio material since 2003, and they ended on a decent string of records: Roots to Branches (1995) is genuinely quite good, The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (2003) is pleasant, and Dot Com (1999) isn’t a bad bit of hard rock. There’s nothing noteworthy here, and even for a diehard Tull fan like myself, I can’t give it any sort of positive endorsement.