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Ian Anderson - Thick As A Brick 2 (Album Review)

Thursday, 08 March 2012 Written by David Owen
Ian Anderson - Thick As A Brick 2 (Album Review)

There’s been something of a second-coming for the concept album in recent years. The excesses of progressive-rock led to the form being derided as esoteric musical snobbery only enjoyed by men with beards and glasses thicker than milk bottles. Yet the proceeding decades have seen the concept album crawl back up from the underground and gain newfound notoriety after several mainstream successes from the likes of Green Day (American Idiot is now a popular Broadway musical), My Chemical Romance, and Coldplay, to name but a few. If there’s something prog-rock cannot stand, it is to be outdone. There is only one thing more indulgent than a concept album: a sequel to a concept album. And to mark the 40th anniversary of the quintessential conceptual specimen, Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, front man Ian Anderson has taken it upon himself to show the young pretenders how it’s done.

The original casts a long shadow, and news of a belated follow-up has been met with understandable apprehension from fans. Thick As A Brick was Tull’s middle finger to the very pomp and hyperbole that defined and eventually destroyed concept albums, the sprawling pretension of the band’s contemporaries pushed to the outer limits of decency. It was a one-track continuous piece of music, presented under the conceit that all lyrics were derived from an epic poem composed by precocious schoolboy Gerald Bostock. Smartly, Ian Anderson has not tried to imitate past achievements, and instead presents a work worthy of consideration on its own merits.

TAAB2 asks the deceptively complex question – whatever happened to Gerald Bostock? It isn’t as clear-cut as you might think. The poetic ‘Might Have Beens’ establishes the concept in Anderson’s inimitably verbose style, positing any number of possible futures for his fictional protagonist. ‘Upper Sixth Loan Shark’ and ‘Banker Bets Banker Wins’ see Gerald dabbling in the shadier side of finances. Elsewhere he is a corrupt Christian Evangelist (the tongue-in-cheek ‘Give ‘till It Hurts’) or a casualty of war (‘Wooten Bassett Town’). Although his eye for British stereotype is as keen as ever, Anderson has deliberately shied away from the knockabout humour of the original TAAB. The result is lyrics that are surprisingly relevant and intelligent, although largely bereft of Anderson’s trademark verbal acrobatics and bite, instead often delivered near-spoken word. Still, there’s a warmth to his delivery that lifts the concept above an aging musician looking back over his life and asking, what if? This could have been any of our lives, and Anderson’s observations capture the uncertainty of modern life with all its highs and lows, indecisions and injustices. There may not be many lines that stay with you after listening, but it’s an impressive feat nevertheless.

So how will diehard Tull fans feel about TAAB2? It is sadly lacking the infectious energy of the original. ‘Shunt & Shuffle’ comes close with an irresistible groove that ends before it can hit full stride, and ‘Old School Song’ lives up to its name with brisk drums and a Hammond organ bounce straight out of 1972. Yet for the most part the music is straight-forward, with perhaps more owed to Tull’s folk-rock heritage, particularly the bucolic approach of Songs From The Wood. Acoustic guitar and piano are often the driving force. Pleasingly there are plenty of opportunities to salute Anderson’s virtuosic flute playing, ‘Pebbles Instrumental’ springing to life whenever the woodwind prances through. The real surprise is ‘A Change of Horses,’ 8-minutes of melancholic drift reminiscent of latter-day Marillion that crescendos in a simply mesmeric flute workout.

There is a handful of forgettable pieces. TAAB2, like its predecessor, is conceived as a single piece of music, though this time split into 17 sections for the benefit of iTunes. It’s inevitable with albums of this nature that some tracks feel underdeveloped or uninspired, ‘Swing It Far’ and ‘Power & Spirit’ being little more than stepping stones in the overall concept. Otherwise, recurring themes, both nods to Tull classics and bespoke melodies, effectively tie the entire sequence together and move it forward to a satisfying conclusion likely to raise a smile from even the most cynical of prog fans.

Special mention must be made of the production. In recent years Steven Wilson, front man of Porcupine Tree and prog rock aficionado, has become the go-to man for taking the helm of remix projects (including Jethro Tull). His appreciation and understanding of classic prog shines throughout TAAB2, capturing a sound that is at once vintage and thoroughly modern.

Undoubtedly there will be those unable to overcome their cynicism about the need for a sequel to such an undisputed genre classic. TAAB2 will underwhelm those expecting a retread of hallowed ground. These might be the very same naysayers that believed the concept album was dead. For those willing to embrace the intelligence and craftsmanship on offer here, Ian Anderson proves that conceptual rock is very much alive, and that no one does it better than the old guard.

Thick As A Brick 2 is released March 30th.

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