Jethro Tull return with the 23rd studio album to go out under that collective banner head, and as ever led from the front, while standing-on-one-leg, by Ian Anderson. RökFlöte apparently began as “a predominantly instrumental album for rock flute” according to the singer, but an abiding interest in his own possible Scandinavian ancestry, led to him exploring the themes of Norse mythology in song.
As we should expect, comparisons to anything resembling pagan metal are zilch. Anderson’s also avoided any potential comparisons to the Disney adventure films of the Marvel comic version of Thor that’s been around since the sixties; and while he’s doffed his feather cap to the Icelandic Eddas he’s not gone round acting like he’d invented them (Unlike at least a couple of bestselling authors in recent times).
Actually, that RökFlöte began as a work for the flute is largely what we get in that the works feels composed and arranged in a classical manner, albeit in suitably sized chunks rather than one epic opera, while it’s also true, there are themes, melodies, and sounds to evoke atmosphere. Not that it doesn’t rock up in places, albeit not outrageously, yet despite the music being what came first it ends up in a more supportive role to the narratives that unfolds in song.
Predictably, as most Viking sagas do, it roughly relates the story of the twilight of the Norse gods, known as Ragnarök, but Anderson plays with other themes elsewhere too, both in the telling of the characters and by subtle wordplay with comparative mythologies and infrequently reappraising recent current world events as if they are events prophesised by the Norns.
Fortunately for those of us who’ve had an abiding interest in such subject matters, Anderson has read up on his subject beyond the obvious and doesn’t just trot out the usual tropes. I daresay, that his curiosity regarding his surname’s origins led to him investigating the linguistic route by which our gods of old travelled from east from west, their followers reinventing their names in new tongues, finding others who took similar deific roles before them and sometimes supplanting them in the process. That the story of Ragnarök is a very late development in all this, not least because Scandinavia held to oral traditions rather than putting their marks down in books, the dark tale of how their gods would die in battle vanquishing evil, is often viewed as a parable to them being encroached on all sides from potential invasion by nations under Papal authority, and why they in turn took to the Christian faith, as a means of survival.
Anderson claims belief in panentheism, that the divine can be found everywhere. I’m not averse to that, nor being agnostic, or otherwise so long as its preachers doesn’t want blind obedience from me. Fortunately, Anderson is poetic in his lyrics, he is able to embrace adventure and symbolism, and often with charm, and also on occassion with subtle wry humour. I’m not saying it all works, or is to my tastes entirely, but I bow in admiration for his worthy attempts.
Ian Anderson takes on the role of vocalist, flautist and occasional other things that he has since Jethro Tull first began. Supporting him for most of this millennium are keyboard player John O’Hara, David Goodier on bass, and Scott Hammond on drums. A newer recruit is guitarist Joe Parrish-James, while Iceland’s Unnur Birna recites from the poetic Edda, compiled from the 13th century Codex Regius, in both opening and closing numbers. Production duties being handled by Bruce Soord of The Pineapple Thief.
With deep breathy sighs of life (but not as we know it) heard, opening tracks ‘Voluspo’ then ‘Ginnungagap’ enlighten us regarding old Northern Europe’s take on the big bang theory. Birna acting as seeress entreats us to listen and following a mellow passage of flute-led progressive music Anderson takes up song over the stirring of distorted guitar – His very English accent, though obviously familiar, takes a little time to adjust to in the cultural context being presented to us. Regardless, guitar and flute lead the way into the yawning chasm of nothingness that is the non-realm of ‘Ginnungagap’ with a more classic Tull feel. Here, bright crisp guitars in near AOR mode attend Anderson’s lyrics faithfully in joyful support, a flute solo parades over a march into what feels optimism despite the lyrics taking a darker turn as here we are presented with the arrival of the frost giant, Ymir, from whom all evil forces are supposedly born though no rationale is ever given why (whereas in Hellenic belief systems there’s jealousy to consider for the patricide that follows).
That the music is far from doom and gloom conveys that Anderson doesn’t buy that story wholesale, and I’m much in agreement. In fact, one of the lines in the very next song is: “Allfather – how do we read you?” Anderson setting aside convoluted chronologies, fast forwards to the tale of a god crucified on a tree in search of knowledge – This Mediterranean theological theme denoting the Wotan/Odin character as king of the gods, is a recent import to the west assimilating others’ previous roles. Either way, in assuming the Aesir gods’ throne he becomes protectorate of humanity while aware of impending tragedy. Musically this number follow in the vein of previous numbers but over lyrics intoned with hymn-like benediction prior to passages of adventurous musically questing, imbued with an air of mystery and danger,
With ‘The Feathered Consort’ Anderson is clever, without being smug. Norse goddesses tended to be lumped together as aspects of divine fertility. First, we need to recall that before everyone got caught up in sky-fathers like God, Allah and their buddies, we worshipped earth mothers above all – Childbirth being a dangerous game for mother and child, one of the greatest joys we can experience being copulation, and the all-important need for crops to grow being obvious reasons why we might have invented such almighty she-figures. Second, that pantheons of gods don’t really spring up uniformly, but each village or location would have a different one and as they got to know each other started prioritising them in order of importance. Thus, this is about Frigga, termed mother of gods, whose name appears to be the eldest linguistically too, but also others not least very late northern arrival Freya, of the Vanir gods, who “rides behind her cats, grey and blue.”
With this number, Anderson delivers a love song honouring not only their maternal and regal ways but as sex goddesses too with all their coy wanton desire, so much so that if you revised the words to Queen’s Killer Queen over an old Al Stewart tune you’d get a naff version of this. Rather, Jethro Tull perform a ballad that is sultry, peppered with intrigue and allusion, and more processional in form as it develops.
As may be expected ‘Hammer On Hammer’ focusses on Thor, a smithy god much more ancient and revered in our western belief systems than the likes of Odin, who got recast as his father. Here I’ll dispute Anderson’s alluding to Thor being akin to the Roman Empire’s Jupiter save for a thunderbolt here and there, but I’ll also applaud him for brushing aside the cartoon brawns-without-brains giantkiller too many folklore tales paint him as, and rather expressing the dark-foreboding tragedy of knowing one’s own immortality will end when putting down earth’s greatest monster, then by revealing that Midgardian serpent is now cast as a false-tongued viper named Vlad – It is a narrative drama that draws you in, from initial acoustic guitar and flute until steadily growing to conclusion with pounding drums and spiky electric guitars.
Having sidestepped much of Ragnarök, to get in some recognised god-songs, we pick up the pace heading for what would be the film’s version last half hour and with a loud howl we’re into ‘Wolf Unchained’ and a fast-paced chugging guitar ensues with extended instrumental passages either side of the actual song part where guitars, flute and bass shine. This is all good fun, so let’s cut to the chase: Big bad Fenris the wolf has escaped his bonds and is on the run, his intent to lead the forces of darkness alongside his father the turncoat Loki in what will be the battle royale. Let the dog have his day, he won’t be laughing out his jaw for long. Powerful, cinematic, I could see this going over well live. I also note it’s the one track where Anderson’s vocals are more forceful and to the forefront of the mix.
‘The Perfect One’ concern Baldur the beautiful, and as such the music tends to reflect this with sweet and pretty melodies, keyboards also a little louder here than elsewhere on the album, though it also ruminates in rockier manner when we discover that if this fertility god were to die an endless winter would arrive and by extension the end of the world. Fortunately, he’s believed invulnerable to all harm, so the gods use him as a dartboard (well, it’s a bit more serious than that). Beyond the straight narrative, Anderson’s lyrics allude to the mannerisms of modern populist figureheads, of online influencers and otherwise, whose fame is their folly for it’s not everlasting. Baldur’s downfall comes at the hands of his own brother, Hodur, when he joins in the drunken fun the gods are having throwing things at the beautiful one, as emphasised by Tull shifting between riotous jig to more emboldened rock sounds, and O’Hara makes himself known again with short bursts of progressive rock organ felt and in ‘Trickster (And The Mistletoe)’ the title gives away both the murder weapon and the real culprit.
A sideways shift, is the life affirming ‘Cornucopia’. Classically styled, in a slow pretty English ballad form the pace quickens in the last verse before suddenly ending, while this is initially confusing it may be to tie-in with someone’s conjugal rites having been well and truly sown on this tale of harvesting, good times, and ultimately fertility rites enacted upon earth, all as if told by a male god – Baldur fits the picture, more so Frey, not least with references to his sister, Freya, but also by distinction of her golden hair Sif. Then, tempos remain upbeat, as flutes blast out morse code like for ‘The Navigators’, a distorted riffing guitar driving it on with additional flourishes of guitar along the way, so too musical asides that allude to high wave danger or slower, calmer rolling on the waters, in what we might perceive to be tales of Vikings pillaging and a looting along the high seas, but Anderson has noted is about Njörðr, the Vanir sea-god.
Returning to the main event, ‘Guardian’s Watch’ throws in more canny similes as Heimdall stands on his rainbow bridge as the forces of evil come over the horizon, alongside references to the actual battle that will ensue. This is sturdy rock in a more traditional manner after starting with an excellent melodic flute introduction.
Rather than get into the nitty gritty bloodbath of gods and giants killing each other, listeners should take that as read or go read some populist book on the subject. Instead RökFlöte concludes with ‘Ithavoll’, a meeting place where will gather Baldur reborn alongside Thor’s sons and other surviving young righteous deities to refashion the world anew, in that biblical New Jerusalem way – To cautious flute and guitar accompaniment we are led to this meeting place where guest singer Birna returns in more awe-inspired hopeful voice over a driving rocking rhythm that ironically is not dissimilar to Sabbath’s ‘Heaven & Hell’ before further musical digressions with guitar, keyboards and flute are all given their turn in a chase; at one point expressing a certain tired but determined recourse to the matter that is suitably prog-like at another a more gayly-lit Lizzy-styled Celtic rock ramble. Thereafter, as it all comes to conclusion, Anderson sings briefly, Birna makes one final vocal statement and it ends as it began with a deep sigh. The circle of life completed.
As I reiterate, this is very much story-driven with music mainly acting as accompaniment, and via this approach comes across well. I admire Ian Anderson for not taking the picture post card transliteration of Norse mythology in his well observed essay that accompanied this, and similarly his toying with themes, playful digressions and poetic delivery of it in his actual lyrics. Now, though personally I’m not a great fan of all that tutting and puffing of trills that Anderson’s apt to do on his flute excursions and there’s none of that on RökFlöte rather a more melodic classical approach – Whether it will be for Jethro Tull fans in general is another matter.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
- RökFlöte is released via Inside Out Music on 21st April 2023.
- Official Website
- The Feathered Consort
- Hammer On Hammer
- Wolf Unchained
- The Perfect One
- Trickster (And The Mistletoe)
- The Navigators
- Guardian’s Watch
- The Navigators (Single Edit)