Jethro Tull, ‘RokFlote': Album Review
Thirteen songs about Norse gods and pagan rites. Tricky musical arrangements that incorporate shifting dynamics and challenging time signatures. Passages both sung and spoken - some in Icelandic. Does it get any more prog than that? The good news is that's exactly what we'd want Jethro Tull's 23rd album, RokFlote, to be. The group's second release in 15 months - following a nearly two-decade gap before its predecessor, 2022's Bible-infused The Zealot Gene - RokFlote boasts all the touchstones of classic Tull, from the intellectual conceit of its concept to displays of instrumental virtuosity that include, yes, plenty of rockin' flute from frontman Ian Anderson. Save for some updated sonics, it's woven from the same creative fabric from the "classic" Tull era of the '70s, all the way back to Benefit.
And that's certainly a plus. Anderson has taken Tull and its myriad members on various stylistic excursions during the 55 years since Stand Up, but the return point and best results have always come from the deft stock-in-trade blend of hard rock, pastoral folk, jazz and classical motifs. That's demonstrated in abundance on the umlaut-flouting RokFlote while still managing to sound as fresh now as when Anderson and company fashioned it. This is also the quickest we've had one Tull album follow the other since 1980, a mark of pandemic-induced inspiration or perhaps a push to productivity as time, and mortality, march on.
Regardless, we're happy to have it. Delivering its tracks in a trim 49 minutes, RokFlote is loaded with rich, enveloping and even tidy constructions - nothing over five minutes and only three tracks over four. And unless you have a real hankering to deep-dive into the mythology of Ymir, Njord and the gang, you don't need a Norse god primer to appreciate these songs, although, spoiler alert, "Hammer on Hammer" might be about a certain hammer-wielding Marvel superhero, including a reference to the apocalyptic Ragnarok.
"Voluspo" opens RokFlote with jazzy flute tones and minstrel ambience - a true song from, and for, the wood. "Ginnungagap" is more measured and muscular, with Anderson's flute dancing through the bridges, while "Allfather" offers playful dynamics and more space for Anderson to stretch out. "Hammer on Hammer," the howling "Wolf Unchained" and "The Navigator" are also showpieces for new guitarist Joe Parrish-James, who played on one track from The Zealot Gene and replaced Florian Opahle after its release. "The Feathered Consort" has a more orchestrated kind of energy, and "Trickster (And the Mistletoe)" sounds like something you'd hear from the house band at a Renaissance festival.
Those are highlights on an album that stays strong from start to finish and holds a solid spot in the upper midlevel of Tull's voluminous catalog. It works for the longtime die-hards and is a welcoming gateway for fresh arrivals. And here's hoping that the creative streak Anderson and company find themselves on will yield even more soon.