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Jethro Tull - Stormwatch CD (album) cover

STORMWATCH

Jethro Tull

 

Prog Folk

3.45 | 454 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
3 stars The famous and fabulous 1970s. That was one wild and colorful era, boys and girls, and I have the polaroids to prove it. Take it from a guy who spent his prime years riding on the fun bus from one end of it to the other. But like all crazy, rambunctious blowout bashes, every rave up has to wind down at some point and that's when the hangover sets in. Like death and taxes. Progressive rock music as an entity partied as hardily as any of its peers and had to deal with the inevitable morning-after, potty-hugging waves of nausea accordingly. No one in the genre seemed to be immune and, as "Stormwatch" would indicate, Jethro Tull trudged out of the decade with an achy whimper rather than a breast- beating roar, as did most of the prog giants of those heady times. The confused Yes served us the rotten "Tormato," the constipated ELP squeezed out the obscene "Love Beach" and the shedding Genesis coughed up the unsightly "And Then There Were Three" hairball. In each case it was as if the slings and arrows they were suffering from the attacking punk rockers and numb-skulled new-wavers made them so self-conscious and insecure about their craft that their formerly-limitless creativity had frozen up as solidly as Nordic ice sculptures. By '79 the once-festive prog carnival had packed up and skipped town, leaving the fairgrounds a mess; littered as far as the eye could see with disgusting glow-in-the-dark condoms, discarded Zig-Zag dispensers and moldy granola crumbs. The dream was gone. The child had grown.

Having said all that, "Stormwatch" is the most listenable of those aforementioned misguided albums and contains a handful of quality songs, indeed. I found the album that preceded it, "Heavy Horses," to be very much a stronger, more consistent effort as if they poured all the shiniest marbles they had left into that LP and when they convened to put this one together all they had were the B-team also-rans and their muse was nowhere to be found, having run off with the dancin' Bee Gees. But one constant remained. Ian Anderson has always had a way with words so lyric-wise you'll discover some impressively literate and poetic lines to make up for the unevenness found in the music.

"North Sea Oil" starts things off with a bit of a nostalgic touch that reminds me of their "Benefit" album's muted aroma as the bass guitar and flute stand out in the foreground of the mix. There's no mistaking who this is from the get-go as it contains all the usual Jethro Tull-isms that made them famous and the 5/4 time signature keeps the tune from being plain Jane commercial fare. Ian makes several ambiguous statements about evil corporations pumping crude from beneath the ocean floor but he doesn't offer much in the way of suggesting a fuel alternative for him and his bandmates to burn while flying around the world on their tours. I think he's just hacked off about them drilling so close to home. Hi ho. Their ode to the overhead nighttime canopy, "Orion," is next and its plodding-as-a-Clydesdale rock beat is less than attractive but the quieter acoustic guitar- led section is much more palatable and engaging. The airy strings are an asset, but the number's bipolar arrangement makes it seem as if two totally unrelated ideas were spliced together to meet a deadline and it falls flat as day-old Pepsi. I do find the words relevant to the times, though. "Prime years fly fading with each young heart's beat," Anderson sings wistfully.

"Home" is a deliberate plunge into the sea of sentimentality that could have become a sappy mush-fest but Ian's earnest, believable vocal delivery saves it from that fate. Martin Barre's tasteful harmony guitar lines and the sweet, full strings are a plus, too. Many of us know all too well how good it feels to return to one's own bed after being on the road forever and Anderson expresses the joy of the first glimpse of his hometown perfectly. "Down steep and narrow lanes I see/the chimneys smoking above the golden fields/I know what the robin feels/in his summer jamboree," he croons. At 9:07 in length, "Dark Ages" is the album's most expansive entry and also the most consternating. Their unusual "scenes from a modern opera" approach tests your patience while waiting for some kind of groove to emerge and it comes off depressingly overwrought as if they're trying too hard to be theatrical. The song's 2nd movement has a better flow to it but there's still a lingering, disjointed atmosphere that doesn't dissipate. The complex instrumental segment is the best part of this extended cut but there's not enough of it and overall I find myself feeling indifferent and uninvolved despite the clever political observation by Ian to "come and see bureaucracy make its final heave/and let the new disorder through/while senses take their leave." Some things never change.

"Warm Sporran" (i.e. a toasty nut pouch) is a happy-go-lucky slice of music-only folk rock where a catchy flute melody carries the tune effortlessly along. Here Anderson's spirited fills show off his undeniable skill and dexterity on the instrument and the marching rhythm track would fit comfortably in a movie scene involving ancient tribesmen gleefully returning to camp from a successful Mastodon hunt. Hi ho. Speaking of cavemen, the popular indisputable fact-based looming world-wide calamity of the moment in the late seventies was the sure-to-come neo ice age. Frowning, freaked-out scientists near and far were urging mankind to start sharpening up their spears and fire-making techniques in anticipation of said deep freeze. Buying into this panic, the band presents us with the scary "Something's On The Move" and in this case those somethings were southbound glaciers. (Environmentalists tend to run hot and cold on this issue, apparently. Stay tuned.) Anywho, this straight-ahead rocker suffers greatly from drummer Barriemore Barlow's hyperactive, overly-busy bass drum kicking and the amateurish arrangement they came up with. In other words, it reeks of filler material. Yet the topical lyrics are, um, cool. "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" he warns.

The spooky "Old Ghosts" follows that dire weather forecast. The tune's shimmering string score effect and Ian's ever-flittering flute are entertaining but as a musical composition the track is pedestrian and instantly forgettable. I do like his opening line of "hair stands high on the cat's back like a ridge of threatening hills," though. "Dun Ringill" follows and it's one of the true highlights of the proceedings. It's sparingly populated with simple acoustic guitars and vocals but it's intriguing, nonetheless. Sometimes less is more. Anderson slyly sings "slip the night from a shaved pack/make a marked card play" as he confirms the power of his inimitable voice.

The album's second mini-epic is the nearly 8-minute long "Flying Dutchman" and it begins with a surprise in that John Evan's elegant piano is brought up to the front of the mix for a change. The song's slow, dramatic pacing is right up their alley and Ian intones ominous lines like "death grinning like a scarecrow" with relish. They toss in a brief upbeat interlude before returning to the original motif but, alas, the whole thing leaves me yawning, apathetic and yearning for the brilliant inventiveness that so enveloped their earlier triumphs like "Thick as a Brick." I guess that train don't stop here anymore. The heartwarming finale comes in the form of keyboard man David Palmer's "Elegy," a very pretty piece of musical poetry that befits its title. The total involvement of the group keeps it from being too saccharine or, God forbid, damned to spend eternity in muzak-land. All sarcasm aside, it really is a beautiful tune.

In the up and down career of Jethro Tull I'd say this one belongs somewhere in the middle of the herd. I have to give them props for staying the course and not trying to kowtow to the fickle tastes of John Q. Public at a time when the self-mutilating punks were calling them dinosaurs and the new wavers' were ignoring them altogether. They were still making their own special brand of progressive folk/rock but I get the feeling that their stretch limo had run out of gas and they were going to have to get out and walk the rest of the way to get out of the 70s. Still, any fan of this honorable band will find enough to like about "Stormwatch" to make it worth their while. 2.8 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |

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