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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

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 – The Broadsword and the Beast – Classic Music Review

114768115Let’s place The Broadsword and the Beast in the proper context.

After the mid-period masterpiece Songs from the Wood, Tull released three so-so studio albums: Heavy Horses, Stormwatch and A. Stormwatch has some very strong pieces like “Flying Dutchman” and “Dun Ringill” and some very weak pieces like “North Sea Oil.” Heavy Horses was pretty weak, though the live version of “No Lullaby” on Bursting Out is pretty solid. A was supposed to be an Ian Anderson solo effort but was Tull-i-cized by Chrysalis. It features a heavy emphasis on synthesized sound and I really only like one song: “Fylingdale Flyer.”

After The Broadsword and the Beast came the curious Under Wraps, driven by Ian Anderson’s affection for spy novels. The record has been universally and justifiably condemned as Tull’s weakest album. Following that disaster, Tull went on a three-year hiatus due largely to Ian Anderson’s throat problems, and re-emerged in superb form with Crest of a Knave.

I would describe the period between Songs from the Wood and Crest of a Knave as a period dictated by Ian Anderson’s changing circumstances and ever-fluctuating interests. Ian buys a farm, we get Heavy Horses and Stormwatch. Ian falls in love with espionage tales and we get Under Wraps. This is also the period where we get Andersonian commentary on current events, most of which show how dated and upper-class he had become, especially in comparison to the contemporary working-class rage of The Sex Pistols and The Clash.

The Broadsword and the Beast has many features that clearly identify it as part of this meandering period in Tull history, especially the greater reliance on the synthesizer and the concern with socio-political trends. Where it differs is in the quality of the songs and the quality of the production. The Broadsword and the Beast is easily the strongest album of this period, especially from a musical perspective. There are a couple of spots where Ian Anderson’s lyrics set my teeth on edge, but generally these lyrics rank as some of his best. The album sounds better than its immediate predecessors, an improvement in recording quality directly attributable to the choice to have Paul Samwell-Smith produce the album, a choice that also provided the band with a detached perspective on the quality of the music. The Broadsword and the Beast has a satisfying, holistic feel, a record that successfully links the medieval with the modern from both a musical and thematic perspective.

Like Aqualung, The Broadsword and the Beast is divided into two roughly thematic sides: “Beastie” and “Broadsword.” That organization is driven more by the lead songs than the actual content, but the “Beastie” side deals more with the darker aspects of human nature. The “Broadsword” side is more diverse, less connected and a touch less satisfying. Overall, the theme coalesces around a central point: we may dis our medieval ancestors and their primitive ways, but while we may have better appliances and means of transport, we’re far short of claiming evolutionary superiority. The fears and instincts that drove our ancestors still live within us today.

“Beastie” deals with the fundamental fears that form the primary obstacle to our development as human beings. Once during a summer hiatus from college, my mother hooked me up with a New Age psychic who gave me a “reading” of my eternal soul that proved to be surprisingly accurate about my deepest fears (though I still think it was more of a lucky shot than astral wisdom). According to the psychic, and repeatedly reinforced by life experience, my two greatest fears are vulnerability and inadequacy. The beasts that come out when I’m immersed in those fears are arrogance (I can be a real castrating bitch) and self-deprecation (believe it or not, dominant little me can get seriously down on herself at times). I relate to “Beastie” in part because I have experienced my own beasts, and in part because Ian Anderson is 100% correct when he tells you what to do and what not to do when dealing with those nasty little suckers:

If you wear a warmer sporran, you can keep the foe at bay.
You can pop those pills and visit some psychiatrist who’ll say
There’s nothing I can do for you, everywhere’s a danger zone.
I’d love to help get rid of it, but I’ve got one of my own . . .

He’s the lonely fear of dying, and for some, of living too.
He’s your private nightmare pricking; he’d just love to turn the screw.
So stand as one defiant, yes, and let your voices swell:
Stare that beastie in the face and really give him hell.

When I was going through a particularly challenging time with my beasties, I did go see a shrink. She was as useless as tits on a hog. She tried to sell me on drugs harder than any street pusher, and her “counseling” consisted of staring at me for fifty minutes while I jabbered away. No, what really works is what Miles Davis did when he finally kicked the heroin habit: lock yourself away and face those fears head on.

Musically, Tull is on top of their game here. The synthesizer sets a suitably ominous mood at the beginning, but as the song takes shape, the orchestral flavor of the synthesizer and the hard edge of Martin Barre’s always superb lead guitar are perfectly balanced. Ian Anderson’s vocal is confident, expressive and not at all preachy (as some reviewers have unfairly complained). “Beastie” is a fabulous, tone-setting opener of power and nuance.

According to the annotations on the Cup of Wonder site, Ian Anderson had this to say about “The Clasp”:

Ironically the handshake, when it is offered, is very often a forced gesture, far removed from its origin which was a way of demonstrating that you had no weapon in your hand and that you were offering your open hand to someone in peace.

I do shake hands quite a bit as part of my work, and I have to say I find the ritual awkward, annoying and superfluous, but business transactions have little to do with real human motivations and needs. My day is filled with “synthetic chiefs with frozen smiles holding unsteady courses.” “The Clasp” also deals with our isolation in the human community, how we pass thousands of people every day in the big city and ignore all those strangers instead of taking a risk now and then to break cultural barriers and discover new friends. Ian’s flute is the dominant feature here, giving “The Clasp” a pleasant sense of the familiar. The different filters applied to his voice oscillate between a sense of closeness and a feeling of distance, and are very effective in reinforcing the theme of essential human loneliness.

“Fallen on Hard Times” is Ian Anderson’s attempt to weigh in on the general mess in the U. K. that began in the 70’s and led to the ascension of the Iron Lady in a fearful overreaction by the voting public, similar to what brought Ronald Reagan to power in the USA. Compared to the scathing social criticism from the punk scene at the time, this is pretty milquetoast stuff that accepts the system as-is rather than what the punks did—identify the system as the fucking problem:

Oh, dear Prime Minister, it’s all such a mess.
Go right ahead and pull the rotten tooth.
Oh, Mr. President you’ve been put to the test.
Come clean, for once, and hit us with the truth

Pulling that rotten tooth à la Thatcher led to a great deal of suffering in the laboring classes while reducing taxes for wealthy landowners like Ian Anderson. Really, Ian should have kept his nose to the musical grindstone and let the politicians ruin themselves.

Ian does much, much better with poisonous personal relationships, as demonstrated by the outstanding piece, “Flying Colours.” By becoming a rock star, he had raised his status in society to the point where he was invited to various posh soireés. There he saw wealthy couples airing out their dirty laundry in public, oblivious to polite convention but very attentive to the need to establish evidence for the inevitable divorce proceedings. Sung in the first-person by the male half of the toxic relationship, the arrangement of mutual convenience and exploitation is exposed as the pathetic and primitive relationship it is:

Shout but you see it still won’t do.
With my colours on I can be just as bad as you.
Have I had a glass too much? Did I give a smile too few?
Did our friends all catch the needle match, did we want them to?
We act our parts so well, like we wrote the play.
All so predictable and we know it.
We’ll settle old scores now, and settle the hard way.
You may not even live to outgrow it.

Display of battle flags aside, “Flying Colours” is a musical delight. Opening over a background featuring the refreshing sound of a real piano played by Peter Vetesse, the song explodes into a Jethro Tull driver, full of those wonderful syncopations and bursts of Martin that knock you on your ass. Dave Pegg’s bass part is a work of art in itself, a combination of melodic counterpoint, bluesy moans and relentless drive at all the right moments. Ian plays his character with sensitivity to text and subtext, making this one of his best theatrical performances.

Demonstrating their tremendous musical versatility, Tull turns down the heat for one of their most beautiful songs, “Slow Marching Band.” Some fans have attempted to interpret this song as an apology for the departure of long-time members Barriemore Barlow, John Evan and David Palmer, but I think that’s a case of identifying too much with one’s heroes. This is clearly a song about the sadness experienced at the end of a relationship, when you know it’s time to separate despite the still-simmering remnants of feeling for the other person. Ian Anderson uses funereal imagery to mark the symbolic death of self-and-other; the experience is one of mourning for the relationship and for the now-separated individuals:

Dream of me as the nights draw cold
Still marking time through winter.
You paid the piper and called the tune
And you marched the band away.

Take a hand and take a bow.
You played for me; that’s all for now,
Oh, and never mind the words:
Just hum along and keep on going.

Walk on slowly don’t look behind you.
Don’t say goodbye, love. I won’t remind you.

Peter Vetesse’s piano is remarkably sensitive, tender in the reflective passages, imbued with finality in the passages of resolution. Gerry Conway’s contributions on drums are also worthy of mention, as he introduces splashes of syncopation and hints of funereal drum rolls while avoiding the impulse to take things too far and turn the song into a tedious military procession.

“Broadsword” opens side two, a historical piece where you imagine primitive Britons in animal skins watching with a combination of fear and determination as the Vikings, the Danes or the Normans show up in the green and pleasant land to rob and pillage. The human instinct to protect the family is prominent here, as is the human tendency to call on supernatural forces to pull our asses out of the fire (“Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman.”) The rhythm reflects the drums of primitives, and the overall production is supportive of the story line. The song fails to grab me, probably because I find stories of battle tedious, but if you’re into that kind of thing, you will find that “Broadsword” is very well arranged and executed.

“Pussy Willow” is essentially a more detailed character description of the office worker described in Paul McCartney’s “Another Day.” This girl Friday has fantasies of being rescued from her humdrum existence by a medieval prince, who will shuffle her off to the mystical east. Sadly, she has to go to work to receive the inevitable cold splash of reality (“Runs from the train, hears her typewriter humming, cutting dreams down to size again.”) Musically divided into slower tempo sections for her fantasies and accelerated tempos for the morning commute, “Pussy Willow” is a fascinating composition. My only complaint has to do with the phrasing. While the pussy willow is a useful metaphor to contrast the lower middle class girl’s existence with those who live on the “fur-lined avenues” she passes on her way to work, it irritates the shit out of me that Ian Anderson had to manipulate the natural syllablization of the word “willow” to make it fit: pussy wilLOW. He could have avoided it by delaying the first syllable and turning the melody into a diminuendo.

I am so anal at times.

“Watching Me Watching You” feels like it belonged on A, not here. It’s too electronic and jerky and doesn’t fit the feel of the rest of the album. Ian Anderson said it was about “the dilemma of people in the public eye.” Yawn. If Ian Anderson didn’t want public attention, he could have pulled a Salinger and disappeared from view. As for “Seal Driver,” Ian claimed it was “deliberately ambiguous,” a clear attempt to hide the fact that the words are unintelligible and he didn’t have a clear grasp of his metaphors. Oddly enough, despite the meandering lyrics, this is one of the most memorable pieces on the album. The melody is lovely and the variations in rhythm are absolutely compelling. The Broadsword and the Beast comes to a fitting conclusion with the sentimental pub song, “Cheerio.” My only regret is that it doesn’t have more verses, because I think it would make a great replacement for the always tiresome “Auld Lang Syne” with the added bonus of not having to remember what the Scots title means when you’re three sheets to the wind.

As you can tell, I have a definite preference for the “Beastie” side of the coin, but I still think that The Broadsword and The Beast is one of Tull’s better efforts. I would have preferred to hear more Martin Barre on this and on all the albums of the synth-heavy period, but I always take comfort knowing that Crest of a Knave is just a couple of stops ahead and Martin will get another chance to let it rip.

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