If Jethro Tull’s ‘folk trilogy’ was not a reaction to Punk, then it was a stupendously well timed circumstance that saw the old rockers pull in the musical opposed direction to the fashionable youth rock movement of the time. While folk had always been an element of the Jethro Tull sound, 1977’s Songs From the Wood had been the first time it was a primary influence, and perhaps they overdid it with the twee folklore references. The following year’s Heavy Horses was much more like it, with the twee references dialled down in favour of a much more grounded look at nature and rural life, and a considerably more muscular approach to folk rock, which resulted in the album being the highpoint of the trilogy. 1979’s Stormwatch was the final album of Tull’s ‘folk trilogy’, and the one which is remembered with least amount of fondness, as it was not an attention grabbing change of direction like Songs From the Wood, nor as pleasingly well rounded as Heavy Horses. This is a bit of a shame, as in many ways the album is one of the most interesting albums by the band, as principle songwriter Ian Anderson tackled social and ecological concerns, resulting in the album having a much darker energy than Tull usually released, with some of the numbers on Stormwatch becoming protest songs, something which Anderson had flirted on and off with in the past.
From the artwork of Stormwatch alone, there is a dark energy to it, as a painting of Anderson’s storm-lashed and windswept face peers at you from behind a pair of binoculars. While the artwork is pretty on-the-nose in regards to the album title, it doesn’t bode well for the mood of a band whose reputation for musical playfulness was only matched by their top-line musicianship. Opener “North Sea Oil” has a tune which positively lurches around Anderson’s flute playing, and some particularly resonant percussion work (featuring possibly a timpani or kettle drum?) from Barriemore Barlow, and fair warning has been given that Stormwatch is an album which eschews plain sailing in favour of choppy waters.
Musically Stormwatch is an odd one. It doesn’t lack melodies, like Tull’s previous albums with a more brooding mood had, although single / E.P. track “Home” is a tune which is better described as comforting rather than pretty. Nor does it lack humour. Instead, the whole thing has that curious previously mentioned dark energy flowing through it, giving the album a strange sort of claustrophobic feel about it. There are moments of audio heft, such as “Orion”, yet there’s also space for a playful instrumental “Warm Sporran”, on which Tull seemingly attempt to one-up their folk-rock genre blending, by gifting the world folk-disco. Elsewhere, Stormwatch emulates the patterns set by its two predecessors, with both sides of the vinyl playing host to an extended folk-prog epic. “Dark Ages” is as suitably heavy and lumbering as its title would suggest, a wonderful tune complete with some doom-laden piano work from John Evans, and is something of a hidden gem in the Tull back catalogue. It is off-set by “Flying Dutchman” on the second side, a number which changes pace and mood multiple times, and contains one of the album’s prettiest melodies. If you want a more straightforward rock tune, Side two opener “Something’s on the Move” is the most riff driven song on the album, and is arguably the album’s most dynamic moment, while the acoustic “Dun Ringill” is Stormwatch’s most evocative number and the song for which the album is best known. Stormwatch closes with “Elegy”, a rare second instrumental for the band, the lush orchestrations of which hinted at band organ player and string arranger David Palmer’s increasingly pivotal role in the band.
With such a diversity of musical dynamics, Stormwatch can come across as a rather fragmented and foggy-headed album, though in some ways that is its charm. One of the potential reasons for this unevenness was the fact that bass player John Glascock was absent for some of the sessions for medical reasons. In Glascock’s absence Ian Anderson performed bass duties in the studio, resulting in a very tightly wound and precise feel on many of the bass lines when compared to the fluid and flowing bass work that Glascock provided, which resulted in Stormwatch effectively documenting Anderson and Barlow’s evolving partnership as the band’s rhythm section. Perhaps it was this that resulted in the different energy through the album, though it equally could have been equally down to the fact that Tull were reaching the end of their exploration of folk-rock sounds, and that the need for change was in the air.
With John Glascock still recuperating, Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg was recruited to the band for the tour to promote Stormwatch. This was seemingly intended to be a temporary arrangement, something which changed when the band received news of Glascock’s death at the end of the tour. Barriemore Barlow, who had already broached the idea of forming a new band with Glascock, was the one hit hardest by his close friend’s passing, and apparently handed his notice in to Ian Anderson, something which wasn’t made public at the time. Anderson himself started to make plans for a solo album, roping in Tull guitar player Martin Barre and Pegg to assist alongside Roxy Music veteran Eddie Jobson and his drumming friend Mark Craney. Record company pressure saw Anderson’s solo album released as an album by a ‘new look’ Jethro Tull line up, and the announcement of Barlow, Evans and Palmer’s departure from the band was fumbled to the point of farce, with the three of them being informed of their ‘sacking’ in the press.
With it immediately proceeding such a turbulent time for the band, it’s perhaps inevitable that Stormwatch is seen as one of the band’s lesser albums, shot through with negative energy and sort of left to gather dust in a corner. That assessment is a bit unfair though, as Tull didn’t really ever manage to release a stronger album than Stormwatch after this point. Anderson’s solo album that never was was released as the synth-heavy A the following year, and from there on in, Jethro Tull’s albums were a mixed bag that only occasionally captured the vitality and spirit of their output from the late 60s and 70s. Given the original intention behind A, the shifting line up due to Glascock’s passing and the fact that Barlow was intending to leave anyway, there’s an argument to be had that Stormwatch should, and perhaps would have been Jethro Tull’s final album. It’s certainly their last album that was unmistakably Jethro Tull. Perhaps if A had been released as an Ian Anderson solo album, then Stormwatch, and maybe Jethro Tull’s career as a whole would be much more widely celebrated than it is now. As it is, it’s all too frequently considered to be where the decline of the band started, rather than the final hurrah of one of the UK’s greatest rock bands as they raged against the dying light.