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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
Whispered

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.

Jethro Tull – Songs from the Wood – Classic Music Review

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After a muddled attempt at a rock musical in Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die, which had followed the near-universal critical rejection of A Passion Play, War Child and Minstrel in the Gallery, Ian Anderson was clearly a man in need of a reset button. Given Tull’s trajectory, it seemed pretty unlikely that they would return to their R&B roots at this late date, and their singular version of rock was beginning to sound tiresome to the listening public. Ian Anderson’s songwriting seemed more forced than fluid, so it must have been pretty clear that a fresh perspective was necessary.

What to do, what to do?

A few years prior to the events in question, Jethro Tull had employed Steeleye Span to be their warmup act for part of the Passion Play tour, and a year after that, Ian Anderson had produced one of Steeleye Span’s albums, Now We Are Six. Given the evidence of a pre-existing interest in traditional British folk music and the fact that he’d settled down with his new wife on a country farm, all the elements were lining up to take Tull down the road to the music of yore.

However, if they were going to pull off this transformation, Ian Anderson and Tull had to fully commit to this new direction. A half-assed muddle wasn’t going to restore Tull’s reputation as a purveyor of quality music.

The a capella madrigal that opens Songs from the Wood tells the listener right at the start that Tull has gone the full monty. It is a clear, striking departure from anything they had done before. It also sets the stage for the most coherent and unified effort in Tull history. Not so much a concept album as a thematic album, Ian Anderson and company apply the conventions of British folk music with remarkable facility to help us reflect on the good and evil inside us that have been and will be engaged in battle as long as humans inhabit the planet.

“Songs from the Wood” is a joyous celebration of the natural world and the healing powers it holds for the human soul. Even for me, a totally committed urbanite who loves city life and wouldn’t be caught dead doing filthy things like camping or hiking, this is a beautiful number. What I identify with is the parallel message of “get back to the basics and free yourself of the superficial bullshit,” a sentiment that Mr. Anderson expresses more playfully in the line, “Dust you down from tip to toe.” The craving for simplicity and clarity in a confused, confusing world is a universal theme, one that Ray Davies had previously explored through his message of preservation. The choice to present the theme in “galliards and lute songs served in chilling ale” was pure genius. The background music, a building mélange of acoustic strum, lute, flute touches, hand-clapping, organ and good old Martin, is a delight. And three cheers for John Glascock on bass! Buried somewhat on his maiden voyage in their previous effort, he’s a strong presence on Songs from the Wood, working with music that demands much more capability than old Jeffrey ever could have mustered.

The theme of rebirth in nature is most directly expressed in the second song, the all-Ian performance of “Jack-in-the-Green.” The figure of Jack-in-the-Green has a curious, non-linear history, but for Ian Anderson, Jack is certainly the symbol of the life force of nature itself, a staunch ally in the battle against mindless modernism:

Jack, do you never sleep?
Does the green still run deep in your heart?
Or will these changing times, motorways, powerlines keep us apart?
Well, I don’t think so . . .
I saw some grass growing through the pavements today.

“Cup of Wonder” comes next, and rather than slipping into analytical mode, I have to say if I made a list of my favorite “joyful” songs, this would be at the top. The feel of this song is wondrous, with its foot-tapping rhythms and rich weaving of a multitude of voices and instruments. There are so many wonderful touches, from the spots of lute to the occasional low octave vocal support in the final verse and chorus and the combination of Barriemore Barlow and John Glascock keeping the whole thing moving despite the rhythmic complexity . . . I just love this song and that’s all I have to say about it! If you want to delve into its symbolism, I refer you to the Cup of Wonder site to view the extensive annotations for all the songs on Songs From the Wood.

But “Cup of Wonder” is not my favorite song on the album! There’s no way a leather-loving, sensuously-sadistic, whip-wielding chick is not going to fully embrace “Hunting Girl!” Even before we get to the story about a poor soul’s encounter with a sophisticated horsewoman, the dramatic introduction culminating in a classic Martin Barre hard-pick attack makes me shudder with joy. Ian is perfect in the character of Everyman with his understated vocal communicating self-deprecation and a strange combination of awe and embarrassment. And the imagery! Perfection!

Crop handle carved in bone, sat high upon a throne of finest English leather
The Queen of all the pack, this joker raised his hat and talked about the weather
All should be warned about this high-born hunting girl
She took this simple man’s downfall in hand: I raised the flag that she unfurled.

Boot leather flashing and spur necks the size of my thumb,
This highborn hunter had tastes as strange as they come, come
Unbridled passion, I took the bit in my teeth
Her standing over me on my knees underneath, underneath

My lady, be discrete, I must get to my feet and go back to the farm
Whilst I appreciate you are no deviate, I might come to some harm
I’m not inclined to acts refined, if that’s how it goes
Oh, high-born hunting girl, I’m just a normal low-born so and so.

I also deeply appreciate the characterization of my favorite form of intimate activity as “acts refined” and the additional validation that I am no deviate!

Tull cools it down a bit with another wonderful and yes, joyous piece of music, “Ring Out, Solstice Bells.” Was Ian Anderson ever in better spirits? Of all the songs on the album, this one best demonstrates the power of the combination of British folk and modern rock. The vocals and hand clapping are sweetly traditional; Martin’s wonderfully sharp power chords and John Evan’s contra-intuitive piano are of modern times. David Palmer’s synthesizer work gives the piece a grand, magical air that raises the power of the song tenfold . . . and the bells on the fade are a child’s dream come true.

Unfortunately, not all is sweetness and light in England’s green and pleasant land! Manipulative males roam the landscape, Reynardine-like, to lay waste the willowy wenches! “Velvet Green” is the darkest number on the album, describing in painful detail what today we would call “date rape.” The structure of the piece amplifies the meaning: the gruesome tale of abuse is sandwiched between idyllic images of green swards where sex is described as a joyous expression of natural instinct (“Never a care, with your legs in the air, loving.”) The coldness of the predator in the central section is intensified by Ian’s choice to make this a first-person narrative, and his vocal is suitably leering against a stark, intimate acoustic guitar background reminiscent of the guitar part on “One White Duck” from Minstrel in the Gallery. The last line of the central section features one of the most powerful images Ian Anderson ever created, shocking in its brutal simplicity:

Now I may tell you that it’s love and not just lust
And if we live the lie, let’s lie in trust
On golden daffodils, to catch the silver stream
That washes out the wild oat seed on velvet green.
We’ll dream as lovers under the stars,
Of civilizations raging afar,
And the ragged dawn breaks on your battle scars
As you walk home cold and alone upon velvet green.

“The Whistler” follows, a curious choice for a single release, but another beautiful arrangement with complex and contrasting rhythms adding spice and a fabulous whistle performance from Ian Anderson. “Pibroch (Cap in Hand)” is the most controversial piece on the album, with Martin parroting bagpipe in what seems an extraordinarily loud and heavy guitar performance on a record so oriented to tradition. I rather like this dirge that tells the story of a man who journeys far and wide to be with his woman only to find his place usurped at the supper table.  The narrative shifts from third to first person in the last line, a very effective device. As for the loudness issue, if you’ve ever heard bagpipes at close proximity, you have an intimate understanding of just how loud those suckers can be. But if your ears need healing, “Fire at Midnight” closes the album, a gentle and homey love song that is the perfect ending for this most beautiful Tull album.

Songs from the Wood is not only a great album, it’s a great album that the public actually noticed. According to Wikipedia, “Songs from the Wood was the first Tull album to receive unambiguously positive reviews since the time of Thick as a Brick (1972) . . . The album reached No. 8 on the Billboard album chart, making it the last top ten album for the band to date.” A clear artistic vision and a full commitment to realizing that vision can go a long way, especially when combined with exceptional musical collaboration and a theme that touches the heart of the modern soul.

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