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The Zealot Gene: Jethro Tull Still Rocks

This is the first time I ever ran through a rock album with the lyric sheet in one hand and a Bible in the other.

On “The Zealot Gene,” brand-new record from British prog-rockers Jethro Tull, front-man Ian Anderson continues his career-long examination of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Fortunately, this legendary band also continues the unique mix of metal and Medieval that kept them on the charts throughout the 1970s. Though the group hasn’t released an all-new studio album since 1999, “Zealot” still bears that unmistakable flute-and-guitar sound of the singles “Living in the Past” and “Bungle in the Jungle,” likewise recalling such idiosyncratic albums as “Aqualung” and “Thick as a Brick.”

I suppose you can tell I’m a bona fide Tull-head; and so, while I won’t rank “Zealot” with 1973’s “Passion Play” or 1977’s “Songs from the Wood” (my fav), I jumped all over this new record — thrilled that the aging Anderson can still crank out a batch of skilled, inventive and thoughtful tunes.

Anderson all but patented the notion of a “concept album” with 1971’s “Aqualung,” which Rolling Stone called “anti-church” and “pro-God.” On “Zealot,” the rocker appears to have moderated his disgust over ecclesiastical hypocrisy, though he still wrestles with Old Testament zealotry and wrath.

As its title indicates, the concept here is our modern tendency to think in extremes, which — as Anderson makes clear in his CD track notes — often leads to division and violence. Reflections on this range from the album’s opener (“Mrs. Tibbets”) to its title track, where “moderation bites the dust” as the writer cautions, “Beware the Zealot gene: naked flame near gasoline.” This reaches its peak — or perhaps its nadir — in the prickly “Mine Is the Mountain,” with a baffling final line that seems to dismiss the jealous Old Testament God of Moses and the 10 Commandments.

In contrast come reflections on the sacrifice of Christ (“In Brief Visitation”); John the Baptist and his mother (“Barren Beth, Wild Desert John”); the resurrected Jesus restoring his faithless follower Peter (“Three Loves, Three”); and the final years of the Apostle John (“Fisherman of Ephesus”).

On the lyric booklet, all 12 tracks are preceded by Scripture references, many of which show a facility with Bible texts that is virtually unprecedented on a secular rock album.

But fans will also want to know whether Anderson can still compose a tune. In his recent work — including a series of solo albums that all carry the trademark Tull sound — his writing has been a trifle flat, without the rip-roaring innovation of earlier tunes like “The Whistler,” “Locomotive Breath,” or “Baker Street Muse.”

To some degree, that is still true on “Zealot,” though there’s plenty to tickle the ears of die-hard Jethro-junkies. Anderson stills play his flute like a heavy-metal ax; “Jacob’s Tale” features some dandy Anderson harmonica; Tull newcomer Florian Opahle rips out a few terrific guitar licks; and “Mine Is the Mountain” doesn’t sound like anything else from the group’s wide-ranging 54-year discography.

Tull remains my favorite band, and I guess I’m not alone; this may be an oddly named album by an oddly named band that most young listeners never even heard of, but it debuted at No. 9 on the U.K. Charts — their first top-10 ranking in 50 years.

In 1976, at the tender age of 29, Anderson famously sang that he was “Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll, Too Young To Die!”

Well — he got the second part right.