For many Jethro Tull fans the complex prog-rock epic A Passion Play (1973) is the band’s finest hour. I for one agree – the musicianship on the record is off the hook, Ian’s vocals were never better and those soprano and sopranino saxes he picked up and dropped shortly after this and it’s followup Warchild added a melodic intensity and acoustic coloring not found on other Jethro Tull albums. For anyone already familiar with it’s glories, or to the dedicated Tull fan, the newly remixed edition of that seminal album will be a cornerstone of their music collection.
Steve Wilson has been going through Tull’s releases, remixing and remastering them for stereo along with 5.1 surround sound playback, uncovering sonic details in the process that enliven and refresh these classics. Of his work so far, 1970’s Benefit and 1971’s Aqualung stand out as now definitive versions of those albums. As 1972’s Thick as a Brick is also complete, he moved on to A Passion Play.
The set is spectacular, including two CD’s, two DVD’s and an 80 page booklet, all housed in a sturdy, properly bound package the size of a multi-disc DVD set. CD 1 contains the new Steve Wilson stereo remix, CD 2 includes the most complete Chateau sessions to date, clocking in at over 60 minutes. DVD 1 is the main album remixed for various surround sound modes, which reveal amazing detail hard to discern in stereo versions, and also including the ‘Hare’ film, and the ‘intro’ and ‘outro’ film footage used in the tour of 1973. Finally, DVD 2 contains the full Chateau sessions all presented in several surround sound formats. Original 1973 mixes are also included.
Of the remix itself, it’s powerful, organic and straight forward on the stereo CD, complete save for a couple snippets of saxaphone. And, it is expanded – now including an additional minute at the 1:52 mark of “The Foot of our Stairs” adding two verses to that section found spliced to the end of that reel. The DVD 1 which sports surround sound is the most exciting remix in that format of any progressive rock album I’ve heard. It seems every bit of the dense mix is included, yet separated out in the overall field of sound, to lend understanding and appreciation to each musician’s parts, even the smallest details, and in particular Ian’s playing, including the infamous soprano/sopranino saxes. There is an immediacy and urgency to the delivery which is highlighted here, along with the true brilliance of Ian’s vocal presentation. Listen to part 1 and 2 alone – “Lifebeats/Prelude” and “The Silver Cord” and easily pick out Martin Barre’s jazz guitar licks, juxtaposed against Ian’s amazing renaissance like vocal melody. It could easily be argued that the double flute solo on “Memory Bank” backed by drummer Barriemore Barlow’s intricate playing is Ian’s best, save for live performances. As presented here I heard bits never audible in any prior presentation.
According to the liner notes in the lengthy and informative booklet, Ian tried to convince Steve to mix out his saxaphone parts, in part due to Ian’s distaste for it, but also due to the dense, crowded work that the album is. It’s something we who love this record would have considered blasphemous and in the end Steve prevailed and trimmed only two short bits while managing somehow to give sounds that had been unclear a little space to breathe and be heard. Over these many years, I’ve never understood Ian’s decision to drop the saxophones, but in the booklet he offers an explanation of his distaste for it that finally resonates for me – the “fiddling about with reeds” which were “wet and soggy” made it less enjoyable that his trademark flute, and marks this album for him with unkind memories. For me, the sound he achieved with these extra winds made Tull “swing” for a short couple of years, making these works unique and wonderful.
On this record, Ian’s vocal work is amazing- arguably his best ever recorded. It’s a more operatic style – as he now states: “it’s delivered in quite a theatrical and natural voice; it’s not rock singing, it’s a baritone singer singing relatively clear and precise tunes” which he now remembers more fondly than at the time. Add to this that its the first time John Evan used synthesizer to any large extent, and it’s certainly the most unique of Jethro Tull’s early work. Though not a favorite of guitarist Martin Barre, it is most fondly remembered by Barriemore Barlow, and by bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, and now, though still a bit begrudgingly, by Ian Anderson.
Prior to writing and recording what became A Passion Play, Ian and company made an attempt to do so in the famous Chateau d’Herouville near Paris. Most of the band recall getting food poisening, and living there under very “scuzzy” conditions. There’s a long story to what happened but basically the band returned to England and scrapped the recorded material, starting over with what became A Passion Play. Subsequently on their 1988 20th anniversary box set, a small selection of recordings from the Chateau where included, then almost all the remainder in 1993 on the Nightcap compilation augmented by added flute and treatments. As the booklet explains, Steve wanted to keep the recordings as they were, without heavy processing, and including around 10 minutes not previously heard, and convinced Ian to do so. The material is a mix of more aggressive passages akin to those that ended up on A Passion Play, which lyrically point to life as being just as a theatrical production, along with many lighter bits, which are from a competing idea of making a concept album around man as a member of the animal kingdom. How these were to be woven together remains a bit of mystery. Nonetheless the material is compelling – most of it first rate, and as core fans will know, some of it ended up on the followup Warchild and elsewhere. It is presented in this package as never before, and as every fan would want it.
Many critics were not pleased with A Passion Play, and it’s accompanying tour, and there were some very unflattering articles written at the time. This prompted a scheme on management’s part to suggest Tull quit the business due to the media coverage, which was not approved by Ian and the band. This nonsense further marks the work as the brilliant creation that it is – the best musical art is very often misunderstood in it’s time. It is true, A Passion Play can be difficult listening for many – the work always has been uncompromising, and it still requires attention to unwind it’s charms. But if you know the material, or believe you could open your mind and your ears to it, this new package is the right way to do so, and comes highly recommended.