It’s always a great honor to review a new record put out by artist whose music you grew up with. This is no simple job, to properly reflect all your feelings about the thing. Well, in fact, it is simple if the album is flawless; you just have to write sentences full of praise until you’re satisfied and the review itself is meaty enough to publish. However, what if, in your opinion, the record doesn’t live up to the hype? On one hand, it’s a work of your childhood musical hero you’re holding in your hands; on the other, you can’t help but notice it doesn’t draw your attention at all. In that case, it turns from an easy task to an incredible challenge.
Ian Anderson, a world-wide famous British rock musician, is one of those people whose influence on the genre is plainly undeniable. The addition of flute to the rock music may seem obvious now, but this idea wasn’t obvious at all back in the days; and I’m pretty sure I’ll be right to think Ian’s name and his famous band Jethro Tull is associated with the distinctive flute work in most people’s minds. It is a part of their progressive sound, after all. The new album of Ian’s, called Homo Erraticus, keeps this traditional trademark flute approach, much in the vein of his previous output, Thick As A Brick 2. It’s definitely worth noting that both of these albums were released under the maestro’s own name, and if there will be more music to come, it too will see the light under Ian Anderson’s name, with the reasons for that stated in a lengthy foreword to Homo Erraticus. That said, despite the name change, John O’Hara still provides keyboards and piano and other key instruments for the band, joined by Florian Opahle on electric guitar, David Goodler on bass, Scott Hammond on drums, and Ryan O’Donnell doing additional vocals on the record.
So, it is a concept album once again, and much like TAAB2 it features an impressive standout musical theme popping up here and there during the whole piece, yet unlike the vocally driven one in the previous record, this time it’s a tasty flute-guitar unison we’ve got here, and it welcomes us to the journey right in the beginning of Doggerland. Ian plays almost all his trump cards right away on this track, uniting his soulful, hearty vocals on the verses with dark ones on the chorus, supported by an atmospheric presence of Hammond organ. Now, add a guitar solo and the neat unison I’ve mentioned before and the composition goes up from merely good to stellar. After such a brilliant start it would be natural to expect even more awesomeness coming up our way, but, unfortunately, the highest point of the album is reach right here and it goes down then, although a few ups will of course occur too.
The follow-up for the opener, Heavy Metals, is a short transitional piece; there is a few of those are scattered throughout the album, adding to the concept but not offering much in terms of actual composition. So let’s just fast forward the lead single, Enter The Uninvited. This song is weirdly jarring, starting with a brief hollow intro which soon turns into a somewhat businesslike melody, and then the whole band comes in with that riff. The “we’re coming in” part’s placement works well enough, and while this track isn’t exactly the one you expect to bump into on your average Ian Anderson album, this change of horses is only welcome. Enter The Uninvited can be compared with a train (avoiding a lame locomotive pun here) which inexorably moves forward and also provides necessary development to the record. Sadly, the same can’t be said about Puer Ferox Adventus, which feels drawn-out for its seven minutes of storytelling. There are nice Hammond bits here and there, yet overall the track feels like Ian is sitting with his audience, quietly telling them overly long, gloomy and half-captivating tales; it feels too laid back, and even a decent instrumental bit in the second half doesn’t save it. Perhaps it could’ve used a bit of shortening? Let everyone decide for themselves.
It’s curious that the next few songs are indeed short and compact. Meliora Sequamur is a nice little tune, featuring Ryan O’Donnell on the lead vocals in the third verse, and the similarity of his vocals to Ian’s is striking. Well, it’s not a complete analogy, of course, but inattentive listeners can be fooled for a few seconds. Honestly, when I saw the band on TAAB2 tour I was totally puzzled for the first few minutes of the concert, because Ryan had this portable microphone and I couldn’t realize who was singing when Ian wasn’t, even though I knew he provided additional vocals for the album itself. Back to Meliora Sequamur though, right after that third verse the main theme from Doggerland returns, and this time it’s played slower, with guitar overtaking the flute in a second part of the movement. And that’s one of the reasons why the concept albums are loved, isn’t it? The set of three-minutes-long songs proceeds with The Turnpike Inn, where Ian and Ryan are obviously sharing their vocal duties again in turns. And when they both unite at the powerful “Drown sorrows in the Turnpike Inn!” part, it’s remarkably intense and a welcome deviation from the established course Homo Erraticus takes on.
Let’s fast forward a bit further now, skipping two songs of nearly the same length, The Engineer and The Pax Britannica, and take a look on the only instrumental track here, Tripudium Ad Bellum. It rolls off with a simple flute and guitar riffs, building the strength up, then flows into a peaceful, brooding flute solo, gets back to the riff and descends into madness in the end, paving the way for After These Wars, a brilliant ballad. It’s a soothing piece, yet it raises spirits at the same time. Both verses begin with an explicit serene feel, and then gradually build up in everything, from Ian’s voice to intensifying drums; and the chorus takes the reverse approach, from distorted guitars to the clean notes played behind the singer’s voice, and a brief guitar solo magnificently wraps the tune up. And we’re at it, After These Wars delivers the atmosphere I’m really missing in the rest of Homo Erraticus; it’s warm and inviting, while other songs here are colder, almost mechanically sounding. This mood also appears in the guitar tone Florian Opahle delivers; while we had that clean and friendly sound on TAAB2, this record offers us a bit harsher tone. It fits the songwriting, no doubt, but liking it is simply a matter of taste.
The penultimate full track of the record, The Browning of the Green, reuses the vocal melody from The Turnpike Inn in verses, and makes room for another two appearances of the main album riff in all its glory, and the second time it comes with a full Doggerland chorus reprise, enhanced by a few neat keyboard patterns. It could look like the album is over, but there is still Cold Dead Reckoning in store. With another reprise, this time from Enter The Uninvited, the record closes with cheerful and energetic spirit, yet to me it sounds a little out of place. Well, considering that The Browning of the Green takes place in 2014, and Cold Dead Reckoning is 2044 according to concept, that’s understandable. However, since my favourite track here is Doggerland, does it mean I belong to ~7000 BCE?
To summarize it all, I’m not overly fond of Homo Erraticus, to be honest. There are bright gems on the album indeed, making the journey worth it, but other songs are so outshined they feel a bit lackluster. That doesn’t mean it will work that way for everyone, of course; I didn’t like the record’s atmosphere, so it could be just not my cup of tea after all. It’s still solid and by no means an instant “turn it off” type of album, but if you would like to discover Ian Anderson solo work, it might be a good idea to start with something else, Thick As A Brick 2, for example.