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Jethro Tull - Minstrel In The Gallery CD (album) cover

MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY

Jethro Tull

 

Prog Folk

3.98 | 792 ratings

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The Whistler
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 1975 was not a pleasant year for the progressive genre. Crimso disbanded, Genesis was balding, and there were, in fact, shirtless album covers on the way. So, what did Tull do in these unstable times? Release the greatest album ever created. Ever.

Okay, not necessarily true. In fact, there was a time when I hated every song on this album (loved the cover though). But times change, don't they? New songs become old friends. It has since become MY album. Ian was going through a messy divorce, see? He was sort of dating that seal lady from the last album. So, drawing inspiration from Aqualung, he created a set of loud/soft songs and called them Minstrel in the Gallery.

And what an opening number that "Minstrel" is. I could write the whole damn review about it (and probably will). The short version is simply that "Minstrel in the Gallery" is the song we've been waiting for since 1972 (and untopped till '78). It's a dark tune, which combines the best of both acoustic medieval Tull and hard rock Tull (which could also be a short review of the album), and it's quite possibly my favorite Tull tune ever.

Long version: although "Minstrel" arguably the hardest song in Tuller history (at least, before the heavy met-tull period), the song opens with the hushed speech of a herald or something to his lord and (ahem) lady. What follows is a decent little acoustic shuffle that is actually quite impressive considering that it's not really medieval instrumentation, just some acoustic guitars. Then we're slammed with elaborations on the main theme courtesy of Mr. Barre. It's essentially just two minutes of him showing off, but this was back when had off to show. Then we slide flawlessly into the final movement, and this is where the meat is.

The build in the intro is perfect. After that, the rest of the band falls away, and it's just Martin, Barrie and Ian's voice. Now, I know Martin's just beating his guitar into the ground, but it's fantastic. Then everyone starts up again, John Evan seemingly slamming his organ at random moments. And Jeffrey, holy crap Jeffrey, is the bass player supreme. I know he lacks the flashy technique of your Squires and Lees, but just listen to the tireless basslines under the third movement; except you can't really call them basslines, because it's an actual, independent melody that, if played by a guitar, would be totally accepted as a solo or something. It's real baroque music my friend, with everyone playing a part. Evan Ian gets some manic flute riffage in at the end of the song. The lyrics are also great; initially it seems to be sneering commentary from Ian the cynic, but in the end, it's also self commentary. Aww. My only complaint is that the flute is mixed a little low, but if you aren't blasting a song with a name like "Minstrel in the Gallery," then you must be missing something. In case you couldn't guess, it's my favorite song on the album.

Alright. Sorry. Damn that's a big paragraph. But it had to be written! Okay, a "Cold Wind to Valhalla" has a similar soft/loud arrangement, but it's not nearly as dry, since David Palmer brings the string arrangements pop back in. Oh well. The strings under the intro are the loveliest thing he's done this side of Stormwatch. The rest of the song isn't bad either (it's a good ole Viking number), Barrie's drumming is great, Ian's vocals are theatrical, Martin's soloing is neat, and John slams the organ some more.

"Black Satin Dancer" is a little over the top perhaps, but at its core, it's a beautiful song. It's another loud/soft arrangement, although more frequently interspersed. It's a strained, pained waltz, speeding up and slowing down at will; and it has possibly the best guitar solo on the album. Really heartfelt that. Martin uses more echo here, and on the whole album, than anywhere else in the Tull catalogue (I think everyone does). "Requiem," a shorter, acoustical song, is just a tad on the throwaway side. I mean, it's gorgeous sure, but it's just sort of atmosphere (plus the strings are a little too much). "One White Duck/Nothing At All" is a bit better. The tune is more fleshed out than "Requiem," even if the instrumentation isn't. And it's a little longer. But what do I care? It's a more solid piece.

The next number is where it sort of falls apart. "Baker Street Muse" is a bit of a side long epic, probably set up to be the set piece of the album. However, "Supper's Ready" it is not. It starts with a fairly clever back-and-forth introductory movement, but it all heads south from there. The repetitive "Pig-me and the Whore" recalls some of the more repetitive parts of Passion Play, but at least it's headbangin'. "Crash-Barrier Waltzer," however, recalls some of the more repetitive, dull parts of Passion Play.

And the "No Time for Time Magazine" bit is the only thing on the album that actually pisses me off. It's just dull as dirt. We pick up a little bit with "Mother England Reverie," with a cool reference to the title tune. Finally, we close with a reprise of the intro, and a fairly clever ending with Ian leaving the studio. The whole piece is well played, and lyrics are pretty damn good, and there's not much offensive about it (barring "No Time"). But I can get well played, well lyriced Tull tunes elsewhere, in places that don't frequently bore me.

After all that, we close with the acoustic "Grace," and what a closer. It's about forty seconds long, but it's beautiful. And funny, the greatest lyrics on the album. Definitely one of my favorite album closers of all time, right up there with "Pigs on a Wing," "Vivaldi With Cannon" and "Aisle of Plenty."

Honestly though, if you want, you can consider this a 3.5, I won't hold a gun to your back. I mean, it's not like it gives us anything particularly new, the ground we're covering here has already been trod upon by Aqualung, Thick and Passion Play. In fact, it's often compared to Aqualung in both style and mood, and Aqualung is a far superior album (plenty more diverse too). Still, I feel there's enough in favor of the album to warrant a four.

For one thing, in the middle of concept albums growing more and more over the top, I like the respite that Minstrel provides us. It's the first album to break that chain since Aqualung, and is really more down to its level. Some people would have liked it to keep up the theme of minstrels performing for a lord, but I like the little, "Baker Street Muse, take one..." spoken intros. It gives the record an unpolished feel that fits the cold, dry mood perfectly.

And, while some people consider this to be the most concentrated Tull-style album in Jethro Ian history, I find it to be one of the most unique (something like Stormwatch seems much more "style-concentrated" to me). I mean, obviously Minstrel borrows a lot from Aqualung, but there are several things about it that are never repeated. For one thing, Ian drops the world view and takes a totally introverted approach, something that wouldn't really be repeated until his solo work, and even then, the attitude was totally different. In fact, the sound is totally isolated (other than the echoey guitar) from the records around it, possibly because they were trying to create an old fashioned "dry" album smack dab in the middle of a bunch of lush prog (Passion Play, Warchild, and they were just gonna do Too Old in a year anyway). It's like the band was trying to craft a very progressive masterpiece using just their instruments; no spacey keyboards, no sound effects. No accordions (which I'll miss) or saxes (which I won't bring up). And when they stick to those guns, it works.

And, the flow is really amazing. I don't know who pointed this out to me (I think it was someone on Amazon.com of all places), but "Black Satin Dancer" to "Grace" can be heard as a single piece, tell a single story, just without the overblown sound effects and goofy instrumentation (usually); the "Minstrel in the Gallery suite," if you will (that was me). Yep. Even "Baker Street" renders itself to this. I mean, you can listen to each song individually, but I sort of miss the surrounding bits and pieces when I do.

This is one of those rare cases of a progressive epic holding actual, real world resonance with the listener. Ian screwed up with his wife. Boom. We've all been there (maybe not with a wife, of course); I have. And remember Aqualung? His father was dying? This is the last time that we'll see this on an album; just Ian and Jeffrey sitting in the studio, playing acoustics (this album and, oddly enough, "Under Wraps #2," proved to me the power of the acoustic guitar as a progressive instrument).

But for me, you can't forget the opener and the closer, arguably the greatest in Tull's history. The mood is great, the flow is great, but you can't beat "Minstrel" and "Grace." Also, this is the last album by the "classic Tull" lineup. Jeffrey left, which means that his lyrical bass, moody input and humorous personality will forever be missed. David Palmer started to move in closer until he became a second keyboardist, a move about which I've always wondered. So dig this final album, the first in a long line of lasts, while you can.

(Now, I know what you're thinking! With five whole bonus tracks, surely the rating will be raised by sheer numbers! Uh, no. Along with the hard rockers and acoustic musings of Aqualung, Minstrel shares the curse of "no good bonus tracks." Not a one. The first three are studio outtakes. "Summerday Sands" is an inoffensive orchestral bloozy rocker, with the emphasis on "orchestral" rather than "rocker," tracing its roots back to the Stand Up material. But it's nothin' special. "March the Mad Scientist" is slightly better. It's the only thing that could have worked on the album; it's short, it's cold, it's acoustic, it's utterly stripped down. It's also my favorite track. "Pan Dance" is a bit of cute flute fluff that's amusing the first listen, but it very quickly becomes dull. I was hoping for something a little more along the lines of "King Henry's Madrigal." Oh well, surely the live tracks are good, how could we mess those up? Well, they ain't none of them complete! That sucks. What sucks more is that it's not John Glascock (I don't think) who's singing in the background, so it must be Jeffrey, which means that Ian has classic Tull material that he's not releasing! HEY! GIVE US OUR LIVE JEFFREY (oh, and, uh, everyone else too)! Oh well. I'm not going to lower the remaster rating, but aside from "March," there's not a lot of incentive to listen after "Grace.")

The Whistler | 4/5 |

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