Monday, January 23, 2017

Review of Ian Anderson's "Walk Into Light"

I posted this review late last night/early this morning on the Sputnik Music website. The references to album ratings within the review refers to album ratings on Sputnik.

Review Summary: This album is an undiscovered gem from Ian Anderson's much-maligned synthesizer period.

Walk Into Light (1983) was Ian Anderson's first solo album. Although it was ignored by many Jethro Tull fans, and disparaged by many others, I consider it one of the hidden gems of Anderson's storied career.

Ian Anderson/Jethro Tull's synthesizer period was one of the least popular periods in the band's history for many fans. As the 1970s moved towards their conclusion, the musical landscape was undergoing an alteration away from guitar-driven and progressive rock towards a more simple synthpop sound. Anderson and Tull were just ending their Renaissance/English rustic period, which began with Songs From the Wood (1977) and continued through Heavy Horses (1978). Anderson could see the times were changing, and he was determined to keep up. Although Storm Watch (1978) is considered to be the third album in this folk trilogy, it was also the first record where he started incorporating synthesizer elements. Following this album, Anderson announced his plans to begin work on a solo album, at which point several members of Jethro Tull left the band. Although he retained the remaining Tull members, guitarist Martin Barre and bass player Dave Pegg, to work on his new project, he intended to create an album with a very different sound from that of Jethro Tull, one where the use of electronic music was prominent. Consequently, he hired Eddie Jobson to play synthesizers and electric violin, and rounded out his lineup with Mark Craney on drums. After much pressure from the record company, though, the resulting album, A (1980), was eventually released under the Jethro Tull moniker. 

Following A, Jobson, who had never been an official band member, left Tull, and was replaced on keyboards by Peter-John Vettese for their next album, Broadsword and the Beast. Anderson must have liked what he heard from Vettese, because after Broadsword he invited Vettese to collaborate with him on his next project, the solo album that would become Walk Into Light.

I won't lie. Walk Into Light wasn't well received. In fact, by most people, it wasn't received at all. There was very little marketing done for the album, and I suspect that many Tull fans never even knew it existed (and some still don't). The evidence on this website is overwhelming -- while the lowest number of ratings for any of Jethro Tull's various studio albums is 69 for 1991's Catfish RisingWalk Into Light has only been rated eight times. Even among Anderson's solo albums, this is the lowest number. However, while the album's average rating is currently only 2.4, when you look a little more closely, you see something interesting: Of the eight ratings (which is admittedly a small sample size), four people rated the album 1.5 or lower, but the other four all rated it 3.5 or higher. In other words, there is no middle ground -- people either hated the album, or they thought it was great. So either those who rated it low are missing something, or those of us who rated it high are delusional.

Time to talk about the music. (Finally, right?) What can I say, I think this is an excellent album. All of the music on it was both written and played by Anderson and Vettese -- there are no other credited musicians. There's not as much flute as there is on most Jethro Tull albums, or on Anderson's later solo work, and the drums are all electronic. There's not even all that much guitar. It's a keyboard and synthesizer dominated album, so much so that Anderson helps Vettese out by playing some of the keyboards himself.

Vettese's synthesizer sound is a little less sweeping than that of such '70s idols as Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson or Patrick Moraz, but it's no less grand. At times, it's delightful -- the introduction to the album's opening number "Fly By Night" never fails to bring a smile to my face, and the sound he uses on the track "Trains" has the lighthearted feel of a '70s romantic comedy. At other times, the sound is vaguely menacing, as on tracks such as "Toad in the Hole" or "Black and White Television". Then there are times when the sound becomes out-and-out dark, as it is on "Different Germany". 

As for Anderson, he has a ball experimenting with electronic vocal effects, particularly on the title track "Walk Into Light". His trademark sense of humor is somewhat subdued on this album, although it comes through in certain songs like "Trains", where he and his daily traveling mates build their lives around commuter trains, eating, socializing with one another and even flirting with the ladies, to the point where they offer to chip in and pay an attractive woman's fare just because they want her to ride with them.

As the album progresses, however, his lyrics become more paranoid and pessimistic. By the song "Looking for Eden", Anderson is looking fondly back to simpler times because he's tired of living his life "in free-fall". By the next song, "User-Friendly", it becomes clear that he's using Vettese's modernistic (for the times) sounds to express his fears of the computer age. "Do we inhabit some micro-space, and interface through wires?" he asks, and concludes that his various electronic devices are bit by bit stealing his mind.

He saves his darkest fears for the album's last song "Different Germany", though. At a time when German reunification was beginning to be discussed as a possibility, Anderson, like many Europeans, wondered what this would bring. "History repeats somehow," he frets in this song, as he withers under the stares of "clean-cut boys all dressed as men/in sharpened uniform." Pretty somber stuff, although I get the impression that for Anderson, this is a typical day's musing, considering he ended the A album with a wistful farewell song to a world that was just ended by a nuclear holocaust.

After Walk Into Light, Anderson continued his flirtation with synthesizer music for one more Jethro Tull album, the poorly received Under Wraps, which was Vettese's last album as a member of the band (although he did add some keyboards to Tull's 1989 album Rock Island). I also liked Under Wraps better than did a lot of Tull fans, but that's a story for another review. I'd have to say, though, that for me, Walk Into Light was the best and most consistent album overall from Ian Anderson's synthesizer period. I listened to it repeatedly to prepare for this review, and I can honestly say I enjoyed it as much now as I did when it first came out. It's clearly not an album for everybody, but if you're a fan of both Ian Anderson and of synthesizer music, I'd suggest you give it a listen. You might find that you appreciate it as much as myself and those three other adoring Ian Anderson fans who rated it at 3.5 or higher.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars