Minstrel In The Gallery
Chrysalis Records, 1975
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/20/2004
You can say whatever you want to about Jethro Tull, but you can't say they'll always do what's expected of them.
After riding the crest of their popularity with Aqualung, diving twice into the concept album pool with Thick As A Brick and A Passion Play and salvaging a third concept album to make the slightly harder-edged War Child, Ian Anderson and company all but abandoned their trademark sound for a more medieval acoustic sound, complete with stringed accompaniment.
The resulting album, Minstrel In The Gallery, is a challenging listen. There is enough of a tip of the hat to the style which brought Jethro Tull to the forefront, but at times this disc has more of the feel of an Anderson solo effort than a band outing. Plus, at times, the disc feels like its volume could have been turned up more than a notch - and, no, I'm not suggesting that electric instruments should have been used. (This disc was recently re-issued with bonus material. I'm still working from the original release. Lousy budget restraints.)
The title track does something which I find intriguing: "Minstrel In The Gallery" ties the group's new fascination with acoustic-based music together with the electric pseudo-hard-rock sound which they had become known for. It's a daring move to split the song in two like this -- and those who grew up solely with the early best-of compilations might not be familiar with the Baroque stylings of the first half of the song. But it's a move that works, and works well -- particularly if you happen to like acoustic music. The only weakness in the song is the drawn-out instrumental break which tries to merge the two musical worlds. It sometimes feels forced, and often doesn't seem like the players know when the interlude is supposed to end.
In all fairness, the band does try to stick to its rock roots as much as possible on the first half of Minstrel In The Gallery, though the results are a little mixed. "Cold Wind To Valhalla" is a decent enough track (and could easily be considered a forgotten gem in Jethro Tull's discography), but "Black Satin Dancer" doesn't quite seem as focused as one would like. Honestly, had Anderson kept this one in a quieter vein, it would have worked better.
Ah, the quieter vein -- and the need for producers to utilize the master volume knob when mixing an album. The quieter numbers on this album - "Requiem" and "One White Duck/0^10=Nothing At All" -- both are so soft (at least on my mix) that one needs to turn their stereo amplifiers up just to hear Anderson's vocals and acoustic guitar work.
It is on these numbers where the disc often feels like it's becoming a solo project for Anderson. Make no mistake, Anderson is Jethro Tull (and a strong case could also be made for guitarist Martin Barre), but without the full instrumentation of his bandmates, the sparseness of these tracks, no matter how beautiful they are, throws the listener for a brief loop.
The centerpiece of the disc is "Baker Street Muse," a 17-minute epic which reinforces the belief that Jethro Tull was able to perform longer pieces without becoming overblown farces of themselves, all the more keeping the listener's interest throughout the piece. Coming off of the critical failure of A Passion Play, this was a risk, albeit a calculated one, and it worked well for Tull. It's a little hard to follow at times, but it doesn't become weighted down in its own storyline, making it another high-water mark for the band.
Yes, Minstrel In The Gallery is not always an easy listen -- mostly because you're hearing a band who was definitely in flux, not quite knowing which way to take their music next. But it is a worthwhile listen, even if it takes you more than one spin in the CD player to fully grasp and appreciate what Anderson and crew were trying to accomplish nearly 30 years ago.