Written by 4:51 am Audiophile Music

A Passion Play Revisited, Expanded, Exploded

Mark Smotroff embraces Jethro Tull’s deluxe Passion Play reissue…

I have to say, I am pleased — and almost thrilled, even — that Ian Anderson and his cohorts in Jethro Tull had the good “eyesight, insight and foresight” to take the big leap, listening to the fans, bringing out a superior 40th anniversary treatment for one of its most misunderstood and wondrous albums: A Passion Play.

AR-JDPPpackage.jpgI’m pleased and thrilled (there, I said it) not only since this reissue sounds and looks great, but also because it holds a kind of personal spot in my heart (if you will). You see, I became a fan of Jethro Tull via one of my older brothers who brought Benefit, Aqualung and Thick as Brick into our world at home at a crucial time when I was expanding my childhood musical menagerie of Chipmunks, Partridges and Beatles.  By the time A Passion Play came out, my brother had moved onto things more progressive than prog rock (jazz fusion ala Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Return To Forever, Mingus and Coltrane’s Ascension — perhaps heady stuff for an 13 year old to be hearing, in retrospect) and thus it became the first Jethro Tull album that I brought home….

A Passion Play was MY discovery… Yay for me!

(Thanks for pardoning my indulgence here…)

Anyhow, as a kid just entering adulthood, A Passion Play “seemed” pretty cool and even eerie, with a cryptic story line that I never quite figured out and madcap sense of the music and band sort of teetering on the edge of a precipice.  There were characters within including this bleeding Ballerina… and this odd rabbit who lost his glasses… all sounding at times very Alice In Wonderland-esque and decidedly English. This album came out at a time when I (and much of America) was getting into watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus (famed British comedy show) regularly as rebroadcast on PBS, so any music that had that sort of irreverent and decidedly non-American flavor to it was ok with me.


Most importantly, the album rocked. I remember sitting around with friends trying to figure out which album had the coolest lowest synthesizer sounds, battling sequences from A Passion Play against Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” and tracks from Yes and ELP.

So here we are 40 years on, we finally learn the back story on A Passion Play and it makes my appreciation for the work grow all the more.  In short: the band had to follow up its biggest hit to date, Thick as a Brick and began recording in ernest but the sessions (held in the same French country studio where Elton John made Honky Chateau) were  (to put it mildly) damned with problems  — it is all described in detail in the liner notes to this reissue.  This caused the band to essentially abort and retreat from France.

I imagine Ian Anderson — as Monty Python’s Arthur in The Holy Grail — saying to the boys in the band:  “Run awayyyyy! Run awayyyyy!” as the staff of the castle-like Chateau d’Herouville where they were recording tossed live cows and rotting vegetables in their general direction.

AR-JTPPset.jpgWith a tour beckoning, the band reconvened in Merry Olde England and in short order rewrote, revisited and re-recorded the music anew that became A Passion Play (reaching #1 in the US and #13 in the UK — so it wasn’t really that big a failure, if one can even call it that).  The album is a testament to the band’s fortitude at the time — they were a unit with all cylinders firing on and one little record studio mishap disaster wasn’t going to stop them.

The 40th Anniversary reissue is subtitled “An Extended Performance” and the results are solid.

Here is a quick run down of what I’ve heard:

a) Stereo LPCM 96/24 — I like Steven Wilson’s new mix just fine as it sounds pretty much like the old mix but with some added clarity and a few minor changes (which he acknowledges in the liner notes, mostly a tempering of Ian Anderson’s sax parts).  

b) Stereo LPCM 96/24 “flat transfer” of the original stereo mix from 1973 — This sounds really great too and is warm and rich like the album. Frankly, its presence gives me good pause to consider whether to get rid of my LP pressing at this stage. This version even breaks up the album sides (replete with the little bit of transitional flourish that interrupts the Hare sequence at the end of Side One).

c) The new 5.1 DTS 96/24 surround mix is jolly fun, very immersive and true to the feel of the original sound of the album. I love how on sequences like “Forest Dance #2,” the synthesizers swirl around you. They open the album with the heartbeat in front you and the distant saxophone playing the Passion Play theme in the back of the room. Sound effects swirl, keyboards enter from the rear and rush to the front. It is a very theatrical mix! Perhaps my only disappointment was that this wasn’t put out on Blu-ray or DVD Audio but I can understand that might have (a) slowed down the manufacturing process a bit and (b) increased the cost of the set. That said, I am happy to “at least” have this and perhaps — maybe, just maybe — they will see fit to issue it on a Pure Audio type format.

Time will tell…

]]>Melodies decaying in sweet dissonance… The bonus discs (CD & DVD) contain an entirely new mix of the legendary Chateau d’Herouville sessions (aka “Chateau D’Isaster.”), which is a wonderful indulgence championed by the fans, the band and Mr. Wilson who obviously felt there was enough there to warrant its own disc. So, in this set you get not only a new stereo mix of the original sessions, but also a 5.1 mix! That is pretty cool considering the sessions are technically incomplete, but they are indeed fascinating, providing much more than a template for what became A Passion Play (and parts of 1974’s War Child, by the way). On these discs we hear the birth of many of the musical themes and ideas that were later crafted into A Passion Play. Much of it stands on its own, yet the connection to A Passion Play is undeniable. AR-JTIanAnderson.jpgNote: bits and pieces of these sessions have been issued on various compilations, most notably the early 90s CD set called Night Cap but those recordings had new flute parts overdubbed on them by Ian Anderson who felt they were incomplete. This new recording restores the original sessions to their pre-overdub state and mixes them as they were at the end of the session. All in all, it sounds like a lost Jethro Tull album, presented in a logical running order and not as just a bunch of outtakes cobbled together (as Night Cap kinda felt). Its pretty cool. More than a set of demos, the Chateau sessions really give you insight into how they worked on this music and thus were able to reinvent the music into what became the final album. The bonus video included is limited but nonetheless fascinating and insightful. Most exciting is the wonderful, whimsical short film of “The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles” which was shown during the concert performance. It makes no real sense but it is an oddly charming bit of theatrical insanity and grandeur, its presence no doubt fueled (funded!) by the hit album before it (ie. Thick as a Brick) and the desire to do something even more grandiose. Forty years on, I can’t help but find wonderful levels of continuum when you put this little film alongside The Beatles prior Magical Mystery Tour (“I Am The Walrus” in particular) and — later on — XTC’s / The Dukes of Stratosphear’s “Mole From The Ministry” and even The Flaming Lips with all their furry creatures circa Yoshimi (“Do You Realize”). Heck, there is even a man in a yellow rain slicker, which The Flaming Lips similarly feature in their video for “Race For The Prize.” Perhaps these elements are not consciously connected, but spiritually, they are all of a certain escapist mindset that this reviewer appreciates. Also included on the DVD are opening and closing film sequences which bookended the live concert featuring the ballerina who seemingly spends an eternity on her back before rising up almost in slow motion before leaping through a mirror ala Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950). I was so pleased to see this film because it adds yet another artful dimension to all that Jethro Tull was about at this time and place in their career. Footage from these films is also used as a sort of screen saver on the DVD which is a very clever thing indeed — the ballerina is constantly slowly moving, refreshing pixels on your big screen TV along the way! Oh, some of you may be wondering how the new package sounds in comparison to the original LP — well, really good! I have an original pressing from Germany which, while not a UK pressing, it is better than the US editions so it is pretty quiet and full bodied. Nonetheless, as much as I like that LP and its large-form cover art, I may trade it in now that I have this deluxe set. It sounds that good! All in all I am very happy with this reissue. Now of course I wonder whether we will get a restored War Child with elements of the film that never was… We shall see…. Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.

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