Thursday, February 16, 2012

Jethro Tull-Minstrel in the Gallery (1975)

In 1975, Jethro Tull rebounded from the uneven Warchild with the great Minstrel in the Gallery. Minstrel is the band's eighth studio album and, in marked divergence with the fortunes of most of theother first-generation English progressive bands, heralded for Tull the onset of a creative second wind that propelled them through the years 1975-1978 in (mostly) superlative form. If I was to make a list of what I thought were Jethro Tull's three best albums, it would include Minstrel in the Gallery. Minstrel presents a refinement of the musical advances that the band had been making since around the time of A Passion Play, resulting in an album that has a foot in Tull's past while also portending future successes.
If Warchild tended toward sonic excess, Minstrel is all about economy and wastes nothing. It was Tull's most acoustic album to date, and remains one of Ian Anderson's most lyrically personal. Vastly diminishing the prominence of electric keyboards (most of what you'll hear from John Evan is on a piano) and perfecting the usage of David Palmer's strings, Ian Anderson created in Minstrel an atmosphere that is both intimate and organic, and which skillfully accomodates each dynamic extreme, sometimes within the same track. The album finds lead guitarist Martin Barre with plenty to do, as the first three songs have blazing guitar solos; yet, both "Cold Wind To Valhalla" and "Black Satin Dancer" also feature some of the album's most graceful, unobtrusive string passages. "Requiem" is a very pretty acoustic song that reminds me a bit of the shorter pieces on Aqualung — in fact, a good deal of Minstrel sounds like a more logical successor to Aqualung than Thick as a Brick, even if the music is often much more sophisticated.
That sophistication comes in the form of Tull's increasingly complex harmonic language. For all of the keyboards, the classically-inspired motifs and the big concepts in Jethro Tull's recent past, the band's music on Minstrel in the Gallery (and 1977's Songs From the Wood) is more original, complex and "progressive" than Thick As A Brick or A Passion Play. One of Jethro Tull's most important formalistic contributions to their genre was their pioneering usage of additive rhythms and beats (a technique discussed at length in Allan Moore's excellent book Rock: The Primary Text and referenced in Paul Stump's The Music's All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock). The style is fully matured on Minstrel's ensemble pieces, distinguishing Tull's rhythm section (drummer Barrie Barlow, bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond and, later, bassist John Glascock) as among the most creative in all of progressive rock. Additionally, Anderson continued to rely less and less on riffs as musical foundations and instead built his songs by weaving together different melodic lines, which increased the compositional potential for harmonic creativity and was conducive to unorthodox verse/chorus structures. It also opened the door for more contrapuntal activity, a trait that Anderson is said to have admired in the music of Gentle Giant.
The second half of Minstrel is taken up mostly by the multi-part "Baker Street Muse," a 17-minute piece that, in retrospect, was the final song approaching this length that Jethro Tull would record. "Baker Street Muse" is evidence that Ian Anderson never did quite master long-form composition, as it is more a sequence of collages than a unified piece. Because I find each of the sections to be melodically appealing and musically interesting, however, I must consider "Baker Street Muse" to be a success; at least, until the various themes are all hurriedly reprised in succession at the song's conclusion.
In my opinion, much of Minstrel In the Gallery displays Jethro Tull at the top of their game. I would recommend it to anyone. The album was remastered in 2002 and now contains a few bonus tracks. While the three studio recordings are all very good — particularly "Summerday Sands" — the two live tracks are irritating: if you're only going to include the intros to "Minstrel in the Gallery" and "Cold Wind to Valhalla," why bother at all?

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