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Jethro Tull, ‘A Passion Play: An Extended Performance’ – Album Review

With Jethro Tull‘s 1972 opus ‘Thick as a Brick,’ band mastermind Ian Anderson aimed to subvert the bloated prog-rock excess of his peers while also paying tribute to their epic sweep. And he succeeded. With its absurd lyrical concept, inter-connected musical themes and instrumental bombast, ‘Brick’ celebrated the genre’s complexity while also lampooning its straight-faced one-upsmanship.

Released during the height of the prog boom, the album brought Tull an even broader fanbase, topping the American charts. But at what cost? Half-parody or not, ‘Brick’ was the band’s crowning achievement — and it left Anderson in a tough spot: figuring out how to top it.

Attempting to avoid England’s insanely high tax rates, Anderson and company fled to Switzerland — and later the Chateau d’Herouville studio in France, where they started work on another ambitious song cycle. But after facing an array of difficulties (from food poisoning to technical glitches), a dismayed Tull whisked back to London. With only 17 days remaining until the start of their American tour, Anderson re-worked bits of the old material (dubbed “Chateau D’Isaster”) for what would become ‘A Passion Play’ — another ambitious prog-rock set based around one lengthy suite split into 20-minute halves. (And, to the dismay of many Tull die-hards, a fanciful, Monty Python-esque palette-cleanser called ‘The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles.’)

Premiered in full on-stage, ‘A Passion Play’ earned hostile reviews, with critics blasting its compositional density (Anderson’s fluttering soprano sax being a prime target) and abstract lyrical concept (based around a theme of death and afterlife judgment). Tull fans remain firmly split into two distinct camps — it’s either the band’s clear masterpiece or their obvious “D’Isaster.”

The truth, as usual, isn’t so simple. While never reaching the seamless heights of ‘Thick as a Brick,’ ‘A Passion Play’ remains an essential follow-up — and thanks to this new ‘Extended Performance’ reissue, that fact becomes even clearer. With a more direct remix (and spacious 5.1 mix), Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson (who previously offered a face-lift to ‘Aqualung’ and is currently trudging through the entire King Crimson back catalog) puts the band’s extraordinary interplay in sharper focus. Barring a few stray sax overdubs, Wilson keeps the arrangements firmly in-tact, but his version lets the songs breathe a bit more — removing some of the reverb from Anderson’s expressive voice, punching up Barrie Barlow’s propulsive drum kit and Martin Barre‘s subtle guitar shadings.

The album’s mighty first side rivals the majesty of ‘Thick as a Brick’ note-for-note — from the haunting classical theme of ‘The Silver Cord’ to the bluesy attack of the ‘Best Friends’ to the eerie pummel of ‘Critique Oblique.’ It’s a winding journey from start to finish, brimming with John Evan’s brilliant organ work and Anderson’s agile singing. But, unlike ‘Brick,’ ‘A Passion Play’ recycles some of the same musical motifs on its long-winded second side, causing it to lose focus.

The true selling point on this reissue is Wilson’s exquisite mix of the “Chateau D’Isaster” tapes. While most of the material has been previously released on various box sets (with the lovely ‘Skating Away’ reworked for 1974′s ‘War Child’), the hour-long set feels at its most cohesive here. In the insightful liner notes (which also include band interviews and journalist essays), Wilson says his goal was to “be more faithful to what actually happened in the studio in 1972,” freeing the material from the anachronistic reverb (and overdubbed Anderson flute parts) that made previous versions feel inauthentic. The best moments here  – the explosive ‘No Rehearsal,’ the quirky ‘Law of the Bungle’ — feel more genuine to their time period.

This ‘Extended Performance’ probably won’t sway the album’s fiercest critics. But at least it re-opens the conversation, offering a clearer window into a work of a flawed genius.

Next: Top 10 Jethro Tull Songs

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