Sunday, July 24, 2011

July 24: Jethro Tull, "Locomotive Breath"

Artist: Jethro Tull
Song: "Locomotive Breath"
Album: Aqualung
Year: 1971

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In many ways, one can make the case that there are certain "rules' that must be followed for a song to properly fit into the category of "hard rock," and yet this forces one to either make those rules almost endless, or place a handful of songs into another grouping.  This is due to the fact that some of the hardest rock songs ever recorded have come from a lineage so distant from the "normal" progression, that the resulting sound, while without question heavy, manages to simultaneously make itself completely distinctive.  Though a number of bands can make such a claim, none have done so to the level of Jethro Tull, as their music on many levels is as unique as one can find anywhere.  Even the mention of the name of the band brings a number of images to mind, and yet in many cases, the amount that they "rock" seems to be forgotten.  While some may even go so far as to take shots at their image or persona, the truth of the matter is, no "true" rock fan can survive without a number of the bands' albums, and to this day, many of their songs remain in heavy radio rotation.  Reeling off a handful of absolutely essential albums throughout the early 1970's, few records can compare to the musical diversity and sheer power that runs throughout their 1971 classic, Aqualung.  While the title track can certainly make its claim as an "all time great," there are few song in history that couple the raw power, brilliant melodies, and flawless vocals that one finds in Jethro Tull's monumental song, "Locomotive Breath."

Even from its first notes, "Locomotive Breath" seems to pride itself on being far from the standard idea of hard rock, as the bluesy, soulful piano introduction from John Evans is one of the most tension filled ever captured on tape.  Yet in many ways, it is not surprising that his brilliant performance leads into such an explosion of rock, as this serves as proof as to how the blues developed into the rock genres.  As his opening solo closes, it is perfectly fused together with the main part of the song by a similarly blues-based, ringing guitar from Martin Barre, before the entire arrangement dives head-first into a gritty, robust hard rock anthem.  However, "Locomotive Breath" has a swagger and core riff that is unlike any other song in history, and it is largely due to the unique bounce that bassist Jeffery Hammond brings to the track.  Not only does the song actually feel as if it is bouncing, but there is a speed and shake the bassline also lends that mirrors the title perfectly.  The way in which Barre punctuates the "empty spaces" with his guitar fills gives the song an amazing amount of depth, and the similarly quick bursts from drummer Clive Bunker make "Locomotive Breath" one of the most imposing "walls of sound" in music history.  When one pulls apart each aspect of the song, the complexity of "Locomotive Breath" is almost overwhelming, and the fact that it all comes together so perfectly is a testament to the exceptional talents of all involved.

However, when one speaks of Jethro Tull, there is simply no understanding the importance of the sheer brilliance of Ian Anderson.  As the bands' leader, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist, it was his unique vision that vaulted this band to their now legendary status.  Throughout "Locomotive Breath," all of his talents are on display, and it is his performance that proves the idea that within rock and roll, it is far more about how you play as opposed to the instrumentation.  This is most easily seen in the fact that the flute solo he delivers midway through the song has an unquestionable "rock feel" to it, while in most cases, such a shift would have dropped the energy of the song.  Anderson also provides the almost ska-like acoustic guitar rhythm that sits in the back of the mix, as well as a few other instruments.  Yet it is his unmistakable vocals that make be the most significant aspect of "Locomotive Breath," and as is the case with a majority of the music of Jethro Tull, there is a strong sense of a storyteller within his singing style.  Delivering the words in a manner which adds yet another rhythm to the song, there is an air of menace within his singing, and this helps to highlight the overall speedy, if not unsettling nature of the song.  From blunt references to adultery to the tone of a speeding train, the way in which Anderson is able to keep the song on the edge of madness is the final piece that makes "Locomotive Breath" such a breathtaking, yet exciting musical experience.

Truth be told, the complexity of "Locomotive Breath" almost made the song impossible to record, as Anderson was said to have had great difficulty in explaining to the band how he wanted the song to sound.  To this end, "Locomotive Breath" is actually a series of perfectly crafted overdubs, as the band was "forced" to record the song piece by piece as opposed to the more traditional method of playing it all at once.  After Anderson worked individually with each band member, recording their own part exactly as he "heard" it in his head, he placed them all together on a single track, and added the vocals as the final piece.  While in most cases, this would lead to the song in question having a rather disjointed or chaotic feel, "Locomotive Breath" gains much of its power from the different layers at play within the song.  The fact that each element of the song carries its own almost overwhelming amount of tension is what leads to the overall mood of the song bordering on mayhem, and yet it is also this tone that gives "Locomotive Breath" it's uniquely unsettling allure.  The fact that not only were Jethro Tull able to bring this all together in what stands as one of the most timeless hard rock songs in history, but they did so with some of the most unexpected instrumentation cements the argument that the "rules" applied to musical genres are simply a way to write off those who dare to dream of different ways of presenting the same sound.  Though it bucks nearly every notion of "hard rock," there is no questioning its place within such a category, and there is simply no other song that hits as hard or in the same manner as the experience to be had within Jethro Tull's extraordinary 1971 single, "Locomotive Breath."

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