Jethro Tull – Stormwatch – Classic Music Review

My parents, who saw all the shows in Tull’s heyday, claim that the Stormwatch concert was one of their favorites, ranking it third on the list, right after the Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play. 

I have to admit that I responded to that claim with more than a little skepticism, and may have included an “oh, for fuck’s sake” in my response. I had no doubt that Tull put on a great show—by all accounts, they were an excellent live band. I just had a hard time believing that a concert filled with comparatively weak material could have been a more satisfying experience than one where the pre-encore setlist was filled with great songs (like Aqualung or Songs from the Wood). While the album has its moments—some great moments—I don’t think Stormwatch is one of Tull’s best works.

The news that a 40th Anniversary Edition of Stormwatch (The Force 10 Deluxe Edition, no less) is on its way reminded me that I hadn’t done a Tull album in quite a while and still had plenty of holes to fill in the Tull narrative. Since I prefer to review original presentations, I decided to get off my beautiful ass and get on with it before the (hopefully) “new and improved” version hits the shelves.

The critical response to Stormwatch at the time of its release was both unfavorable and unfair. What was unfair was that nearly every review I read lumped Stormwatch into Tull’s “folk period” along with Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses, a view still prevalent to this day. This massive display of groupthink begs the question, “Did any of those critics actually listen to the fucking record?” I count one folk song on the entire album, with two others somewhere in the ballpark. You could make a much better case placing Stormwatch in the genre of progressive rock, but really, the music is all over the map. I would define Stormwatch as a transitional album between the folk-rock lean that preceded it and the more electronic sound that followed it. The evidence supporting the transitional label is strengthed by the many changes in the band lineup after its release—mainstays John Evan and Barriemore Barlow decided to split, and sadly, bassist John Glascock died of heart problems during the tour. Combine all those personnel changes with the irrepressible restlessness of Ian Anderson and it’s hard to see how Stormwatch could have been anything but a transitional album.

I’ve always felt that the variability in the quality of Tull albums was driven more by the quality of Ian Anderson’s songwriting than style, instrumentation or vibes in the studio. What weakens Stormwatch more than any other factor is the lack of clear thematic intent. He had a strong metaphor to work with; there were plenty of signs in the ’70s that potentially destructive “storms” were gathering on the horizon and exerting a destabilizing effect on societies across the globe. Unfortunately, through a combination of incredibly poor track placement and the tendency of the creative mind to chase butterflies, he allowed the theme to dissipate almost to the point of irrelevance. While the new edition may clean up the inconsistent quality of the production, some of the songs are simply unsalvageable because they weren’t very good songs in the first place and don’t fit particularly well with the other songs on the album.

Stormwatch is also the album where Ian Anderson began dabbling in current events, with seriously mixed results. “North Sea Oil” is one of the weaklings in the litter, and its placement in the pole position immediately lowers listener anticipation. The problem isn’t with the musicians—Ian’s flute fills are spot-on and Martin Barre gets in a few good licks—the problem is with the blah lyrics, very awkward melody and curious chord progression. The odd shifts in tempo add nothing to the piece and the spoken word passage interferes with a relatively high-quality Anderson-Barre duet. And what’s that “Before we all are nuclear—the better way!” crap all about? Rule #142: Never open an album with a song that sounds like the third page of the Business section.

I rather like “Orion,” especially once Ian stops channeling Milton (“Let’s sip the heavens’ heady wine” is particularly annoying) and plants his feet on terra firma:

And young girls shiver as they wait by lonely bus-stops
After sad parties: no-one to take them home
To greasy bed-sitters and make a late-night play
For lost virginity a thousand miles away.

The melody in the verses flows very nicely, and the mix of acoustic guitar, strings and piano blends exceptionally well. I would have preferred more clarity on Martin Barre’s rough guitar in the choruses, but that loss is offset by the excellence of Barriemore Barlow’s responsive drum patterns. This is one song that could benefit from remastering, and I hope the deluxe version cleans up the mix.

“Home” is a relatively pedestrian love song where Ian expresses garden-variety rock star guilt about leaving the main squeeze behind while he traverses the planet on a jumbo jet. This time David Palmer overdoes it on the strings, and Martin’s electric guitar fills feel quite out of place with the tender mood expressed in the lyrics. The slight lift in energy from “Orion” vanishes pretty quickly, a phenomenon that usually points to a problem with track placement, but trying to resolve that issue uncovers another problem. “Home” is one of those wistful, reflective songs that belongs near or at the end of an album, but unfortunately, there’s already a wistful, reflective number in the closing spot, the uninspired instrumental “Elegy.” The problem isn’t track placement but a shortage of sufficiently diverse, quality material.

“Dark Ages” can be dispensed with in short order: nine minutes and fourteen seconds of poorly-arranged, generally uninspiring music supporting a set of thoroughly incomprehensible lyrics. There’s a brief moment two-and-a-half minutes in where Martin Barre launches a machine-gun attack from the fretboard and Barriemore Barlow sounds like he’s getting ready to let it rip, but the anticipation dies a horrible death when Ian cuts off the power to give us another dull verse.

Side one wraps up with the sprightly instrumental “Warm Sporran,” where Ian shines on both flute and bass (filling in for the ailing Glascock). This is one of the tightest band performances on the album, with Evan displaying superb touch and Barlow masterfully handling the diverse drumming demands. It’s also one of the best-engineered tracks on the album, so I hope the remastering doesn’t mess with it too much.

If you’re hoping that side two is any better, guess what? It is! I’ll never understand why an album titled Stormwatch didn’t open with a song charting the path of a fierce storm gathering in the near-distance. . . especially WHEN ONE OF THE SONGS ON THE ALBUM DOES EXACTLY THAT. “Something on the Move” would have made a far more compelling opener with its ripping guitar, energetic flute and . . . it resonates with the title of the fucking album! And goddamn if Ian didn’t nail the poetic imagery:

She wore a black tiara
Rare gems upon her fingers
And she came from distant waters
Where northern lights explode
To celebrate the dawning
Of the new wastes of winter
Gathering royal momentum
On the icy road
With chill mists swirling
Like petticoats in motion
Sighted on horizons
For ten thousand years
The lady of the ice sounds
A deathly distant rumble
To Titanic-breaking children lost
In melting crystal tears.

Let me just say that I deeply resent the decision to shift to gender-neutral names for hurricanes and tropical storms. Only a woman could make such a dramatic, dominating and icily mesmerizing entrance, paralyzing men in their tracks as they struggle to understand how they could possibly sport an erection in a sub-zero environment. Because cold bitches are hot, dummies! I love the rhythmic differences between verses and chorus, the former marked by almost funk-like syncopation and the latter more kick-ass rock. I’m almost always happy when Martin Barre is prominent on a Tull song, as he seems to feed off the energy of the others while returning the energy in full.

As for the follow-up, “Old Ghosts” is a nothingburger of a track, a reminder that even excellent musicianship can’t save a song if the song fucking sucks. Cut it out entirely and you wind up with “Dun Ringill” next in line, the perfect complement to “Something on the Move,” a song that presents a different form of intensity while strengthening the storm metaphor. Dun Ringill is the site of an Iron Age fort on the Isle of Skye, a place within walking distance of Ian Anderson’s digs at the time of the recording. The soundscape is hauntingly beautiful, integrating the sounds of storm and sea with precisely strummed and arpeggiated acoustic guitar. The windswept nature of this ancient place on a far northern isle is captured in the brief bursts of vocal echoes, like human sounds carried on the wind bouncing between the rockfaces. It’s a song that evokes images of shadowy pagans gathered amidst a stone circle (a la Stonehenge), united in ritual as they contemplate the destructive power of nature:

We’ll wait in stone circles
‘Till the force comes through
Lines joint in faint discord
And the storm watch brews
A concert of kings
As the white sea snaps
At the heels of a soft prayer

Ian’s voice is particularly fine on this track, his tone alternating between matter-of-fact acceptance of fate and soaring when offering his companion a stroll to this magical, darkly romantic place. It will forever befuddle me (no blonde jokes, please) that Stormwatch did not open with the pairing of “Something on the Move” and “Dun Ringill,” as those two songs back-to-back make for an intensely compelling introduction while clearly establishing a strong central theme.

At this point, the dual irritations of incomplete ideas and jumbled track order are really starting to annoy me, but Ian Anderson manages to save the day with what I think is one of his greatest and most impactful compositions, “Flying Dutchman.” Written during the period when the exodus of the “boat people” escaping Vietnam was at its peak, the song is unfortunately a timeless reminder of human resistance to providing haven for people fleeing violence and repression in search of a new life—resistance that is often tightly linked to racism and xenophobia. The symbol of the ghost ship of legend doomed to sail the seas for all eternity serves as a metaphor for the fear of outsiders. As the story morphed over time, the phantom ship came to be seen as a portent of impending doom, making the threat of the horrible consequences of allowing “foreigners” into one’s country a sick form of common wisdom. In truth, the Flying Dutchman is a creation of our own fears, a projection of our shadows.

The first verse describes an old woman standing at a harbor, sending warm wishes to the children who have set sail for distant shores. Their journey is doomed before it begins, as barriers to entry have sprung up in a multitude of countries, ensuring they will “come empty home again.” The music supporting the verse alternates between quiet moments and sudden thrusts, oscillating between quietly expressed hope and the natural fear that would accompany any journey into the unknown. The contrast between the gentle piano-flute duet and Martin Barre’s distorted, trebly guitar is quite dramatic, expressing in music the gap between innocence and hard experience. John Evan gives us a marvelous farewell performance in this piece, forming a compassionate counterpoint to Ian’s gentle, sadness-tinged vocal. As the verse ends, we hear Barriemore Barlow in the distance, executing a snare roll with military precision that cues a shift in style and tone for the chorus. Evan now switches to rhythmic support by adopting a style close to barrel roll, allowing Ian to deliver his first message to the first-worlders in the audience:

So come all you lovers of the good life
On your supermarket run
Set a sail of your own devising
And be there when the Dutchman comes.

The second verse describes some of the horrors faced by the boat people during their perilous journey in search of a home:

Wee girl in a straw hat: from far east warring
Sad cargo of an old ship: young bodies whoring
Slow ocean hobo ports closed to her crew
No hope of immigration, keep on passing through.

Ian’s second message is directed at parents with children, asking them to make the empathic leap: there but for fortune, those could be your kids:

So come all you lovers of the good life
Your children playing in the sun
Set a sympathetic flag a-flying
And be there when the Dutchman comes.

You may have heard of the boat disasters occurring in my neck of the woods: stories of thousands of immigrants crammed into barely seaworthy vessels drowning in the Mediterranean with appalling regularity. The horrors of such a death were also familiar to the boat people:

Death grinning like a scarecrow Flying Dutchman
Seagull pilots flown from nowhere try and touch one
As she slips in on the full tide
And the harbour-master yells
All hands vanished with the captain
No one left, the tale to tell.

Ian’s final message to the smug and comfortable attempts to remind them that the same fate awaits them unless they open minds and hearts to the fundamental truth that we are all human and our survival is dependent on mutual assistance:

So come all you lovers of the good life
Look around you, can you see?
Staring ghostly in the mirror
It’s the Dutchman you will be
Floating slowly out to sea
In a misty misery.

All it would take to put first-worlders in the same boat is one crazy bastard doing something to ignite a war, and given the recent ascendance of several crazy authoritarian bastards who are fully committed to fostering hatred between human beings, any of us could find ourselves taking a sail on the Dutchman in pretty short order. Ian Anderson has rarely written a song of such power and undeniable truth, and I hope with every fiber of my being that we learn to embrace that truth before it’s too late.

Mentioned previously, “Elegy” isn’t worth another word. I will now move on to the denouement.

Though I think it’s somewhat of a mess as an album, I definitely intend to purchase the deluxe edition when it comes out. All the Tull deluxe editions released so far have been of the highest quality, and I’ve always learned something new from the listening experience. In this case, I’m hoping that some of the excluded songs, demos or outtakes will provide substitute material for some of the weaker tracks so I can imagine a more perfect version of Stormwatch.

No, it’s not their best, but those few keepers make Stormwatch worth an edited spin.

11 responses

  1. Back for a follow up to my 2019 comment. Was listening to my edit of Stormwatch with the bonus tracks and thought of your review so I went back for a re-read. I really enjoy your takes on music in general but especially Tull.

    Anyway, thought I’d share my edit. I kept Old Ghosts but ditched Dark Ages. I’ve found it hard to create a really focused edit that works as some good tracks seem to be out of place no matter where I put them, but I like them anyway so, here it is.

    1) Something’s On The Move
    2) Dun Ringhill
    3) North Sea Oil
    4) Warm Sporran
    5) Orion (full version) – even though I find the “prog” sections to be a little tired / uninspired sounding, it’s still really solid and one of the last times he included a prog interlude in a long track.
    6) Kelpie (love this track)
    7) King Henry’s Madrigal
    8) Flying Dutchman
    9) Old Ghosts
    10) A Stitch In Time
    11) Urban Apocalypse
    12) Broadford Bazaar

  2. […] Stormwatch […]

  3. Hi there!

    Good review and I agree to many of your points. Did you get to hear the new remix by Wilson? Spectacular as usual.

    However even that does save what i think is the biggest problem for me: Ian’s bass playing on much of the album. As much as I love him as a musician and a true songwriting genius, his bass playing sucks. So bad. I guess the lines are well written, but there is no sense of groove at all. Don’t understand how nobody told him at the time! 🙂

    The new box has a live tour where the new bass player actually does a great job and breaths life in many of the songs.

    But the biggest thing is the Associate Recordings on the second disk, which has studios outtakes and early versions of Dark Ages, Orion and Dun Ringil.Not all versions are quite finished and polished, but with an actual bass player it makes many of those songs much better! Also a lot of jamming and instrumentals which I love Tull for. Quite recommended!

    1. I did, and you’re right—Wilson was a very good hire, once again. I love listening to Tull outtakes—great learning experiences for those interested in the recording and composition processes.

      Tull has a long history of bass-related performance problems and the weak bass on Stormwatch really hurts the album. I didn’t want to mention it because I’ve slammed Tull bass contributions so often (mainly Jeffrey’s) that I think people were getting tired of it.

  4. Great review as always! I think I enjoy Stormwatch a little more than you, but I understand your criticisms. I’m posting this a few days after the 40th anniversary showed up on my doorstep, and I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on it?

    Steve Wilson’s remixes, as usual, are outstanding. And the bonus material includes some great remixes of previously available songs. A Stitch In Time came out particularly well. But for me, Urban Apocalypse is the real stand out. It’s really intense and rocking, and certainly as good or better than most of what wound up on the album. It’s about 100 times more interesting than Dark Ages – I’m baffled as to why it got cut. It’s got some interesting rhythmic gyrations… maybe he felt it was overwrought. Anyway, I dig it.

    1. I agree about Steve Wilson’s remixes and yes, I’m planning on getting the 40th-anniversary edition and overcoming my mixed feelings (though I’m still mad at Wilson for cutting Maddy Prior from the remix of “Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll,” even if it isn’t much of a song).

  5. Same as Neil, it was one of my first albums (preceded only by SFTW and Stand up) so while feeling the same way about it being transitional and unfocused, it has several of songs I really like. First, the opener which you dislike, is very much old school JT. The song is in 5/4, and there is nothing wrong or unusual about the chord progression. I think it cleverly modulates from Ab major to A minor through the catchy V/I power chord bar. It grabs you attention for a second and before you know you are in A minor. It lands eventually back on Ab major in an unusual way but still sounds OK to my ears. The bass line is spot on, and John Glascock would have probably played it exactly that way. You could even sing it. The bass is heavily panned to the left, so you can appreciate it better silencing the right channel. The line “before we are all nuclear, the better way!” is in my opinion obviously ironical, very typical of Ian: read it in the context of the preceding and following lines. I get sentimental with Elegy, since is one of the few tracks where John Glascok plays, and he died a couple of months after the release of Stormwatch. And Dark Ages used to be a much better song before being committed to record, I like how it was played live during the spring 1979 Stormwatch tour with John Glascock still on board, and with the upcoming 40th release you will get the studio version with John on bass. So when I listen to Dark Ages I do so while remembering how it used to be. But very interesting that the songs I like the most are the ones you dislike, and still we arrive to similar conclusions in assessing the album !

    1. Thank you. You’re right that such chord progressions and key changes were not at all unusual for Tull, but this one feels awkward to me. But we arrived at the same place at the end—amazing.

  6. I’ve never understood the notion that Songs from the Wood, Heavy Horses and Stormwatch are some sort of semi official “folk trilogy.” How anybody can listen to Songs from the Wood then Heavy Horses and decide that those two albums are very similar is bewildering to me. Songs has a strong unifying thread running through it that’s about fertility, mankind’s connection to nature and how Britain’s “pagan” customs used to deal with those things. Heavy Horses is a collection of disparate songs on muliple subjects with no unifying theme. (And how do people manage to square the disco influenced tracks with the idea that it’s folk?) Aside from that, the two albums don’t even sound similar; the production on Horses is wildly different from that on Songs.

    If there’s anything that ties the three albums together then maybe it’s that Songs concerns itself almost exclusively with country matters (ahem), Horses moves away from that into more urban and modern subject matter and Stormwatch then continues on the same trajectory, leaving behind practically every trace of folkiness. I guess you could see that as a straight line thematic progression through all three (?)

    Given some of Ian Anderson’s remarks when interviewed in the post Stormwatch era, it’s clear that he was deliberately trying to simplify the Tull sound on this album; to bring in a little more directness, to dump some of the “musically complicated” aspects and maybe try to connect with the post-punk audience. Interestingly, when left to themselves the rest of the band made King Henry’s Madrigal, which doesn’t do any of those things.

    The fact that Flying Dutchman is very easily the best track on the album and it also mostly ignores the new direct and simplified approach is also quite telling.

    I disliked “Home” from the first listen. There’s something about the feel of it and the way it repeatedly builds up to Anderson’s “Ho… ooo… oooome” that fills my mind with images of a stadium full of lighters held aloft while everybody sings along. Ack. Gag. No.

    Once Punk had happened, I remember the music press in the UK continually using phrases like “Unfocused bombast” and just plain old “Bombastic” to slag off Tull. It’s a small piece of Official Music Criticism that… uh… well, let’s just say it annoys me. (*) Imagine me looking down at my feet in shame now and muttering “Yeah. Dark Ages is unfocused and bombastic for no real reason.” It doesn’t help that you can clearly see what it was trying to do but then also clearly see it not quite doing it. At the very least the lyrics needed another pass. (Although I’m quite hopeful that the 40th Anniversary release will offer us a version with the longer, more ominous introduction. Some extra atmosphere might help this track. Might.)

    (* Bombastic? Are you… are you talking about it having loud parts and quiet parts? Parts where it’s all aggressive and then parts where it’s gentler? That’s… music. Are you seriously suggesting that music shouldn’t have any dynamics? I think Beethoven would like a word. Also, are you sure you even like music?)

    The rest of the album is… meh. Okay. Listenable. Musically, I don’t find Something’s on the Move to be particularly better than North Sea Oil, but you’re right about the lyrics being both better and more connected to the theme.

    I like this album much more than it seems from the above, but it’s deservedly overshadowed by everything else Tull made in the 1970s. Well. Almost. (-cough- Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll… -cough-)

    1. Thank you! I’ll try to work “unfocused bombast” into a satirical review! Your comment regarding “Home” is now officially a classic.

      Ah, Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll . . . I’ve studiously avoided it but I’ve decided to go forward thanks to Cliff Richard and the Shadows, of all people. I’m working on a review of their Singles/EP collection, and I had to admit that my familiarity with The Shadows was pretty much limited to “When bombs were banned every Sunday/And The Shadows played F.B.I.”

  7. This was my first Tull album I have always had a soft spot for it despite its weaknesses, but then I also like Rock Island for different reasons.

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