This 3-CD/3-DVD set consists of Jethro Tull’s departure from their Progressive roots into an electronic rocking voyage with their 13th studio album, A. Originally released on the Chrysalis label on August 29th in the UK and on September 1st in the States in 1980, the album was originally going to be an Ian Anderson solo album, but the label decided to be credited to the band instead. While there were two original members – Ian Anderson and Martin Barre – from previous line-up changes, the album did well.
Recorded during the summer of 1980 at Maison Rouge Mobile and Maison Rouge Studios featuring bassist Dave Pegg and drummer Mark Craney along with guest musician from Roxy Music, violinist and keyboardist Eddie Jobson, A is getting the recognition it deserving entitled A (A La Mode): The 40th Anniversary Edition. And with Steven Wilson returning to the mixing table once more for the Tull reissues, it’s time to see what has the maestro has done to Tull’s underrated gem.
Gone are the storytelling structures from Thick as a Brick, Aqualung, A Passion Play, and the Folk-Rock trilogy, into soaring adventures from the Fylingdale Flyer. You can hear Barre’s guitar and Eddie’s synths into the forefront as the doubling-vocal tracks from Ian as he sings “Through clear skies tracking lightly from far down the line/No fanfare, just a blip on the screen/No quick conclusions now everything will be fine.”
It does have a little bit of Rush in there as if they were honoring a bit of the 2112-era, but checking the channels on the plane’s coordination to make sure it makes a soft landing with some galloping grooves. Batteries Not Included becomes this intensive synth-rocking explosion into the danger zone thanks to Eddie, Martin, Mark, and Ian’s improvisation on the intro.
With its nod to this incredible strange toy from the Land of the Rising Sun, the question where are the batteries for it to work? Not only Tull can rock, but show some humor in search of the one thing to make it turn the lights on and make the wheels run. Eddie takes us in a darker turn with his electric violin into the working-class Uniforms as he helps Ian on his melodic vocal styles by going upwards and downwards.
But once he returns to the folk-rock roots with some synths leading the way on Working John, Working Joe, Ian doesn’t shy away from Tull’s golden-era for a brief 3 minutes as he goes back the Premiata Forneria Marconi-sque vibrations of a medieval folk turned heavy rock dance for The Pine Martens Jig.
Closing number, And Further On starts off with a nod to the unsung British jazz group Gilgamesh from their Another Fine Tune You’ve Got Us Into period for a minute before Jobson takes us into the deep, dark forest as Ian sings about the pollution level has gotten worse; “We saw the heavens break/And all the world go down to sleep/And rocks on mossy banks/Drip acid rain from craggy steeps.”
And the state on Earth has now entered the O-Zone level, but then the dynamics from Barre’s guitar comes crashing in for Craney bringing hopefully a small glimpse of the sunlight to perch through the dark clouds. The situation ends on a cliffhanger on what is going to happen next. And who knows where the next hope for peace will be and will they be there for us?
The bonus tracks on the first disc on contains Barre’s guitar introduction for the extended version of Crossfire. It feels almost like this overture-sque scenario before it goes straight into the original take. For me, I always felt Martin’s guitar on the opener, should have been on the album because it gives us a take on what the danger is to come and how we must prevent it.
Coruisk starts with Ian’s flute by taking us into a darker atmosphere with Jobson’s echoing piano filling up the halls before the bass, dooming guitar, and drums sends the listener into at first these abandoned halls before the unexpected eruptive time changes come charging in with some heavy conga grooves. Since I’ve mentioned about Rush earlier, this is probably their take of an earlier vibe of YYZ from the Moving Pictures period by taking it up a notch a-la Tull style!
The second and third disc is their live performance which had been previously “bootlegged” at the Los Angeles Sports Arena during the A tour on November 12, 1980. I can remember watching the footage of their stunning performance of Aqualung which was on VH1 classic when I got back into the re-introduction world of Jethro Tull in the fall of 2005.
Now with the Slipstream available on the A box set on DVD in Steven’s mix and the Sports Arena’s recording, it makes you feel like you have a front row ticket to watch the band’s performance at their best. From the moment they take the stage with the blistering take of Black Sunday as Ian becomes the storyteller, you can feel they are a part of the journey before Jobson goes into some heavy classical concerto to be flying into a far-away land.
I can hear Dave Pegg laying down the funk on his Bass on Crossfire as he and Martin follow Ian’s pleading on the scene of the crime and portraying his innocence while laying down heavier militant rock vibes to Protect and Survive. This gives Eddie a lot of ammunition he needs during the performance between his violin and Ian’s flute solo. You can feel his appreciation during the times he plays the synths by following Martin’s arrangements.
He is really going light-speed on his violin as he plays nonstop to take center stage for the audience to keep going. I could feel the intensity of Curved Air’s Darryl Way and Mahavishnu’s Jerry Goodman. The band members are following him in hot pursuit to see where Eddie is going into next before Barre lays down some hammering improvisations to give Jobson more ammunition he needs for his keyboard solo.
Now if you think he’s doing a symphonic composition, think again. Eddie’s keyboard solo becomes dark and gothic. He adds enough charges to bring the reverbing effects inside the arena as they cheer him on to add some classical vibrations of Liszt’s last symphony. They also perform two tracks from the War Child album; the dancing sing-along for joy on Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day and the powering punch of Bungle in the Jungle.
But when it comes to the late Mark Craney during the drum solo break on Uniform, he’s almost like a conductor taking the drum exercises to a larger scale. He plays at times between Buddy Rich, Bill Bruford, and Neil Peart. He’s really going into a killer solo on the kit. Jazzy, Rocking, and in your face, Mark deserves a lot of recognition on this number.
The verdict? While it’s not one of my favorite Tull albums, The A La Mode box set is worth the wait. And made me appreciate the album a bit more thanks to Steven’s incredible mixing to show that he may have one more Tull reissue up his sleeve. So who knows what will happen next. But it’s time to fly again once more to delve back into the A album, and finally getting the recognition it deserves.