Crest Of A Knave
Chrysalis Records, 1987
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/27/2004
In many ways, Crest Of A Knave, the 1987 "comeback" album by British rockers Jethro Tull, has been vilified, mostly because of its controversial win at the Grammys as Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal performance.
Of course, anyone with half a brain (which apparently isn't a requirement to be a voter for the Grammys) knows that Jethro Tull is neither hard rock nor heavy metal. In fact, after listening to Ian Anderson and crew now for nearly two decades, I know it's impossible to pigeonhole the band into any specific category. Are there some rocking moments on this disc? Yes -- but there are numerous introspective songs that balance things out. In the end, the disc comes off as tentative -- maybe even a little too tentative.
Right off the bat, we need to cut the group some slack. Jethro Tull had been searching for their voice for most of the '80s, thanks to the surge in popularity of synthesizer-based rock in the early half of the decade. Tull tried their hand at this, with minimal success -- in turn, they all but turned their back on their guitar-driven roots, which was an ill-advised move. In addition, Anderson had to undergo throat surgery in the mid-'80s, which changed his vocal sound a bit. It's a little weird hearing Anderson in this shape, but one quickly warms to his adjusted tones.
There still is enough electronica on Crest Of A Knave to suggest that Tull had finally worked through the feeling-out phase and had found the right balance between it and a more organic sound. The opening track "Steel Monkey," while not the greatest song Tull had come up with in their 20 years of existence to that point, is still a respectable effort, and is one of the more memorable songs on the disc.
Likewise, "Jump Start" is a return to form for the group, and it is thrilling to hear Martin Barre's guitar work again brought to the forefront. Quite possibly the hardest rocking song that Tull had recorded in over a decade, Barre makes the most of his time in the limelight, showing why he is probably one of the most underrated lead guitarists of his time.
The bulk of Crest Of A Knave, while listenable and somewhat enjoyable, does tend to wear the listener down a bit. Maybe it's the 10-minute epic "Budapest" which just doesn't seem to go anywhere. Maybe it's the lack of real venom in "Farm On The Freeway," otherwise a very good song. Maybe it's the listlessness of other tracks like "Dogs In The Midwinter." By the time the listener reaches the end of the disc, songs like "The Waking Edge" and "Raising Steam" (the latter having more than slight similarities to "Steel Monkey") come as a relief.
It would be fair to say that Crest Of A Knave was the strongest album Jethro Tull had recorded since A (and I realize I'm opening up a can of worms with that statement), but it would also be fair to say that Jethro Tull still was a group from the past trying to figure a way to survive in the present. This is, by no means, a bad album, and does deserve more attention than glancing at it for its controversial history. But while the disc has some great moments, it wasn't quite yet a return to the group's halcyon days.