JETHRO TULL Albums Ranked

JETHRO TULL Albums Ranked

Out of the ashes of the ‘60s new sounds emerged and began to bud, just as that decade went. Progressive rock surfaced and gave anonymity to music, letting strange concepts and extravagant music step in front of the band itself. In 1972 it finally blossomed with classic releases by Genesis and Yes. Even though they are known as two of the greatest prog bands ever, it was another band that mastered the continuity of a prog album: Jethro Tull. Thick as a Brick was the first album to have a single song on an LP (the song split in half due to the technology back then, but it is one song.)

Formed in December 1967 by Ian Anderson, Mick Abrahams, Glenn Cornick and Clive Bunker, put out their debut This Was next year, and since then went on to release 22 albums in total, in various line-ups (although two of them include re-arranged and re-released songs).

We revisited the band’s discography and ranked the band’s albums. See more below.

22. Under Wraps (1984)

In defense of Jethro Tull’s fourteenth studio album, Broadsword And The Beast, frontman Ian Anderson claimed that the album was really nothing more than a collection of folk songs infused with modern, electronic elements. “…Underlying all this were the less-than machine-like, humanly played drums, bass and guitar lines along with flute, mandolin and the other acoustic sounds familiar to Tull fans,” he wrote in the album’s liner notes. This statement was not entirely untruthful and, had the songs off Broadsword And The Beast been stripped of their synthesizers and vocoders, they would have been at home on releases such as Heavy Horses or Stormwatch. But could the same be said of the album’s heir, Under Wraps? To make a long story short, no.

But, pray tell, what can be found underneath the synthesizers and now-programmed drums? Well, not very much at all, aside from tuneless crooning and the occasional cursory flute or guitar melody. If one were to take the song “Watching Me Watching You” (the weakest link off of Broadsword And The Beast, an album that by Tull standards was by no means exceptional), and make it one hour long, they would find themselves with something quite like Under Wraps. Tasteless synths, tasteless programmed drums, and tasteless lyrics inspired by multiple viewings of From Russia With Love constitute the majority of the album and the entirety of songs such as “Lap Of Luxury,” “Nobody’s Car,” and “Radio Free Moscow.”

That said, the album has a few half-decent tunes that almost prevent it from becoming an absolute failure. “European Legacy,” a mainly-acoustic tune, is surprisingly pleasant despite how much the invasive drums try to spoil it, and “Under Wraps #1” sees the band still playing synth-rock, but making the melodies a bit more interesting. The album’s real saving grace, however, is “Under Wraps #2,” a brief acoustic reprise of #1’s main theme. While the song is by no means spectacular (compared to the likes of “Moths” and “Cold Wind To Valhalla,” it’s a pretty standard tune that would have been a filler track on past albums), the song offers a nice break from the dull, meandering mess that composes the rest of the album.

Aside from these moments of (relative) quality, the album is a monotonous bore that soon blends into one endless, hellish blur of pounding drums and toneless mumbling, with the occasional flute lead trying fruitlessly to add some life to the music.

With Jethro Tull’s next album, Crest Of A Knave, Anderson would return to playing progressive rock upon realizing that synth-rock was by no means his forte. The band would soon turn to heavy metal and hard rock, and would release albums arguably worse than Under Wraps, but, as it stands, this remains one of the lowest points in Jethro Tull’s discography.

21. Rock Island (1989)

When Crest Of A Knave received a surprisingly large amount of praise from critics (who even bestowed upon it a Grammy), Ian Anderson wisely decided that releasing another album in the same vein would not be an entirely worthless enterprise. It’s true that musically, Rock Island is very much like it’s predecessor: Jethro Tull once again finds themselves playing progressive rock, with especial emphasis very much on the word “rock”. There’s a fundamental difference between the two, although: Crest Of A Knave was good. Rock Island, on the other hand, is anything but. The whole album is a throughly pedestrian affair, and never really becomes anything more than the aimless ramblings of Anderson, whose voice is as weak as ever, accompanied by Barre’s energetic, but oddly shallow, guitar playing.

Anderson haphazardly croons about whalers, stolen mandolins, and women of questionable repute, and yet he never manages to entertain, let alone excite, the listener, despite how much “Strange Avenues’s” nostalgic references to “Aqualung” try to pull on the listener’s heartstrings. The whole album is an exercise in stagnation, with the worst offenders being “The Whaler’s Dues,” which spends it’s eight minutes doing absolutely nothing aside from muttering a few uninspired pleas for forgiveness. It’s true that songs like “Big Riff And Mando” do see the band occasionally finding inspiration for short (very, very short) spells of ten or twenty seconds, but these offensively brief moments only serve to show how subpar the rest of the compositions are.

Throughout the album’s runtime, Jethro Tull does the musical equivalent of standing absolutely still. None of the melodies are given a chance to develop or progress (hell, most the time there really isn’t much of a melody at all) and thus the album ends up becoming a monotonous bore that, much like Under Wraps before it, ends up becoming an hour-long blur of toneless muttering, spiritless flutes, and superficial, forgettable riffs.

20. J-Tull Dot Com (1999)

With 1995′s Roots to Branches, Jethro Tull signed a sixth lease on life by absorbing the ethnic sounds of India and the Middle and Far East. Ian Anderson was camouflaging his failing voice with fluting that was better than ever and with songs that suited his singing range. Jethro Tull follows up Roots to Branches with J-Tull Dot Com, a title that advertises both the band’s new website and Anderson‘s newfound Internet prowess.

The band has made a career of blending rock with jazz, blues, classical, and folk, and it would seem that the globetrotting Roots to Branches, along with Anderson‘s solo album from the same year, Divinities: Twelve Dances With God, would point to a full-time obsession with world music. But now the band abandons some of the world sounds in favor of songs that are more straightforward and lacking in variety, and unlike Roots to Branches, J-Tull Dot Com fails to excite with the first listen. While not as memorable as the previous effort, the album still delivers standard Jethro Tull: Anderson‘s flute, Martin Barre‘s crunchy guitar, and the wide-reaching keys of Andrew Giddings support Ian‘s ever-weakening voice, which he imposes onto every song. Once again Tull‘s capable hard rock is alternately ornamented, twiddly, and heavy-handed, so after repeated listens Tull fans should be satisfied.

19. A (1980)

After the release of 1978’s Stormwatch, Ian Anderson and Martin Barre found themselves in quite a predicament: whether due to death, death-induced depression, or simple personal squabbles, four members of Jethro Tull were forced to leave the band. Furthermore, the relatively stagnant, though still interesting, Stormwatch proved that the band (which, at this point, was really just a duet) would have to advance in a new direction in order to remain interesting. Frustrated by the problems that faced the band, Ian Anderson decided to release a solo album on which he would embrace new musical technology and experiment with synthesizers. Chrysalis, his record label, however didn’t like this idea very much and insisted that the new record would be released under the Jethro Tull moniker, and thus, A, a thoroughly mediocre journey into the realms of synth-rock, was born.

Synths aside, most of A is really just a Jethro Tull album at heart: the jazzy pianos in “4.W.D (Low Ratio)” and the Celtic fiddles in “The Pine Marten’s Jig,” to name a few examples, would have fit in with ease on past releases. The problem is, A is just not a very good Tull album. Theoretically, songs such as “The Pine Marten’s Jig” and “Working John, Working Joe” should have worked well: both tunes are delightfully energetic, contain folky instrumentation, and show the band trying their hardest to please. However, in the place of catchy and interesting melodies, all we are given is what sounds like a poor Heavy Horses outtake (one that pales in comparison to the likes of “Bouree” and “King Henry’s Madrigal”) in the former and dreary Big Brother-related delusions in the latter.

While most of the other songs suffer from the same problems as the above-mentioned examples (“Batteries Not Included” and “4.W.D (Low Ratio)” are the worst offenders), it’s true that A contains one or two worthwhile tunes that, while not saving the album entirely, make it a much less painful listen. “Black Sunday,” for example, has an unusual sense of urgency to it, and is all the better for it. Additionally, the energetic “Fylingdale Flyer” and melancholy “And Further On” are enjoyable listens, as is, to a lesser extent “Protect And Survive.”

Ultimately, with a couple exceptions, the music found on A fails to excite, especially when viewed alongside the rest of the band’s catalogue, and the pitifully bad lyrics (“Self-appointed guardians of the race/with egg upon their face; Now I’m a working John/and I’m a working Joe/and I’m doing what I know for God and the Economy/Big brother watches over me”) certainly don’t make the album very much more enjoyable. Jethro Tull would improve the formula that they created on this album with the release of it’s successor, Broadsword And The Beast.

18. Catfish Rising (1991)

By the time that the 1990s came about, Jethro Tull was in desperate need of doing something to once again become relevant. For the past ten years, boring release came after boring release, with only two somewhat worthwhile (or, rather, not entirely embarrassing) albums being released in this relatively long time. It seemed that by now, Ian Anderson, whose voice was severely weakened, couldn’t write an entertaining tune, a notion acutely reinforced by the disastrous Rock Island. And so, in 1991, out came Catfish Rising. Was it the comeback that the band needed? Probably not, when considering that it did little to change anyone’s opinion of the band, but that doesn’t stop Catfish Rising from being a rather interesting listen.

Often overlooked as just another dreary post-Heavy Horses album, Catfish Rising actually saw Jethro Tull significantly improving upon their newer, almost Dire Straits-esque, sound. The album moved away from the superfluous, aimless atmospherics and metallic meanderings of songs such as “The Whaler’s Dues” and “Strange Avenues” and towards a raw, bluesy sound, and for this the album is all the better.

Strangely enough, it all works. The melodies are almost always memorable, the flutes sparkle with energy, and the guitars, once again gritty and rough, spit out solos that could have been taken straight from Stand Up. For the first time in ages, Anderson’s charisma and energy is evident, and it’s obvious that the band is genuinely making an effort to make Catfish Rising sound good, something that can’t be said about many of the album’s predecessors. Martin Barre in particular surprises, with his soloing showing an unusual amount of restraint and relying less on flamboyance than usual, something exhibited perfectly by the melancholy “Still Loving You Tonight,” whose leads elevate a good song into absolute bliss.

Despite the bluesy direction taken by the band, one can find a fair amount of acoustic material, with the Indian-themed “Like A Tall Thin Girl” being a particularly refreshing listen. Also of note is “Rocks On The Road,” a fun, quirky little number that quickly became a live favorite, with good reason.

The album’s biggest downfall comes in it’s lack of diversity. Unlike the eclectic releases of old, Catfish Rising is content with alternating between only gritty, electric bluesy numbers and soft, acoustic bluesy numbers, these occasionally including slight elements of Celtic or Indian music. Due to this unfortunate lack of variety, the album is much more tedious than it should be, especially when the music’s quality is placed into consideration, and this is in no way helped by the sixty minute length of the album.

Despite the fact that Catfish Rising is certainly a step up from the likes of Rock Island and Under Wraps, one can’t help feeling that much of it pales in comparison to the band’s back catalogue, especially when examined from a lyrical standpoint.

17. Crest of a Knave (1987)

After four years spent by Jethro Tull futilely advancing into electronic territory, and especially after the synth-laden mess that was Under Wraps, it was easy to overvalue the band’s supposed return to form, Crest Of A Knave. The album was instantly lapped up by critics and especially by fans, happy that Anderson finally decided to return to familiar ground. And yet, soon after the band was awarded the infamous 1989 Grammy for best hard rock performance, it seems that the general public realized that Crest Of A Knave contained rather little to be excited about, and was really a rather average album for Ian Anderson and friends.

The first thing one realizes when listening to Crest Of A Knave is Anderson’s weakened voice: prior to recording the album, the singer experienced throat surgery. The minstrel’s voice on this album was often likened to that of The Dire StraitsMark Knopfler, a comparison that is very valid. Unfortunately, Anderson’s vocal range suffered greatly during the operation, and so the melodies stay confined to a very small register, and, on songs such as “The Waking Edge,” his voice has a harsh, raspy quality to it. Consequentially, the music never really is given the opportunity to become as interesting as on past albums such as Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young To Die! or Stand Up.

16. The String Quartets (2017)

Featuring the Carducci String Quartet, the album is in essence a reimagined compilation album. It’s composed of some of Jethro Tull‘s greatest hits, yet each of them have been rearranged and recreated to fit with the orchestral instruments. If classic Jethro Tull fans were used to songs entitled “Locomotive Breath,” “Living in the Past” and “Aqualung,” it might have come as a surprise to see the titles “Loco (Locomotive Breath),” “In the Past (Living in the Past)” and “Aquafugue (Aqualung)” on the album.

Fear not though; although of course it’s impossible to make the songs sound identical to the originals, the root of each song is still there. And yes, Ian Anderson‘s exceptional flute playing is also present throughout the album.

15. The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (2003)

The Jethro Tull Christmas Album was released during September of 2003 and it proved to be their best album in years. It may not be a traditional Christmas album in the truest sense of the phrase, but in an odd way the music captures the spirit of the season. The tone and texture of the album is actually closer to their Songs From The Wood period rather than their recent hard rock offerings.

The Christmas Jethro Tull consisted of Anderson, lead guitarist Martin Bare, drummer Doane Perry, keyboardist Andrew Giddings, and bassist Jonathan Noyce. There are a group of string players on hand as well to lend a festive air to the project; plus, old friend Dave Pegg makes a holiday appearance on a few tracks.

Anderson re-recorded a number of songs from the group’s past. “A Christmas Song,” the even-better “Another Christmas Song,” “Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow,” “Ring Out Solstice Bells,” and a reworked “Bouree” are all resurrected as tasty holiday fare.

And yet I find the seven instrumentals to be the heart and soul of the album. The best of the lot is “Greensleeved,” which uses the traditional “Greensleeves” as its taking off place and the album closer, “ Winter Snowscape,“ written by Martin Barre, which allows him to grab the spotlight.

“Birthday Card At Christmas” is the opening track, written by Anderson especially for this release, and contains over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek lyrics which he’s been so good at creating. It’s a song about his daughter who is unfortunate enough to have a birthday near Christmas.

The Jethro Tull Christmas Album marked a return to their musical past and as such produced a nice if somewhat unusual holiday release. While the paucity of truly new content prevents the album from being a true masterpiece, it’s still an eminently worthy offering, featuring a satisfying blend of old material, new material and intriguing covers. I wouldn’t say that the album is trying to subvert the subtext of the holiday season, but it’s certainly atypical for a Christmas album, and is thus an LP that evades the usual plight of such CDs and accordingly can be enjoyed in any season, amounting to anything but a once a year listen.

14. Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll: To Young to Die! (1976)

The album, which is, in all probability, at the least slightly autobiographical, tells of an aging rock star struggling to remain relevant among changing times. He sees how the music of him and his peers falls out of favor, and begins to fall into obscurity. Convinced that he is nothing more than a relic of past times, the man decides to commit suicide by getting into a motorcycle accident. As fate has it, the old rocker falls into a coma, only to reawaken during a revival of his music, in which he rises back to stardom.

Not unlike the protagonist, Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll certainly seems like a bit of an anomaly in Jethro Tull’s catalogue. Released at the time that Ian Anderson penned some of his most ambitious output and reveled in lengthy, multifaceted compositions, the straightforward, predominantly hard-rocking tunes of Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll certainly sound out of place. Jethro Tull sounds much more showy and self-confident than ever before on songs like the sanguine “Pied Piper” and the genuinely heavy “Taxi Grab,” and, unlike the somewhat ill-fated “War Child,” it never sounds forced.

Indeed, the main components of Jethro Tull’s sound are present, so the folky melodies, charming flute leads, bouncy bass lines, and the agreeable acoustic strums are still abundant, but they all sound much more boisterous than before, and the acoustic guitars are often joined by Martin Barre’s scorching electric leads. Even the softer numbers, such as the impossibly beautiful “Salamander, “are uncharacteristically energetic, with the sole exception being the painfully lethargic “From A Dead Beat To An Old Greaser.”

Unfortunately, despite the unexpected vigor found throughout Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll, very little is as exciting as the band’s previous highlights. Aside from “Salamander,” along with the sweeping, monumental title track and the transcendent “The Checkered Flag (Dead Or Alive),” with it’s awe-inspiring string crescendos, very little is as memorable as the material off of Aqualung or Thick As A Brick. Additionally, the middle third of the album ends up sagging and meandering, with almost all of the most invigorating songs found towards the beginning or end of the album.

Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll is by no means perfect, and is not essential, but remains a fun listen that is let down by a small amount of filler. At the least, it proves that Jethro Tull, then nine years old, sure as hell wasn’t too old to rock ‘n’ roll.

13. War Child (1974)

War Child was Jethro Tull‘s first album after two chart-toppers, Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play, and was one of those records that was a hit the day it was announced (it was certified platinum based on pre-orders, the last Tull album to earn platinum record status). It never made the impression of its predecessors, however, as it was a return to standard-length songs following two epic-length pieces. It was inevitable that the material would lack power, if only because the opportunity for development that gave Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play some of their power.

Additionally, the music was no longer quite able to cover for the obscurity of Tull‘s lyrics (“Two Fingers” being the best example). The title track is reasonably successful, but “Queen and Country” seems repetitive and pointless. “Ladies,” by contrast, is one of Tull‘s folk-based pieces, and one of the prettiest songs on the record, beautifully sung and benefiting from some of Anderson‘s best flute playing to date. The band is very tight but doesn’t really get to show its stuff until “Back-Door Angels,” after which the album picks up. “Sealion” is one of Anderson‘s pseudo-philosophical musings on life, mixing full-out electric playing and restrained orchestral backing in a manner that recalls Thick as a Brick. “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day” is a beautiful, largely acoustic number that was popular in concert, but “Bungle in the Jungle,” with a title that went over well, got most of the radio play. “The Third Hoorah” is really a follow-up to “War Child,” and opens with one of the prettiest progressions on a folk tune in Tull‘s repertory, with some lovely harpsichord from John Evan evolving into a powerful rock number with a surprising orchestral break and what has to be the most successful appearance of bagpipes in a mainstream rock song.

12. The Broadsword and the Beast (1982)

One can easily draw parallels between the opening notes of A, played by a futuristic synthesizer, and the first gunshot that begins a long, costly war. From the moment that these notes were played, Jethro Tull was attacked by a powerful, indomitable adversary: the 1980s. After spending the seventies playing blues, progressive rock, and even folk, the band stepped into the new decade, and found themselves immersed in a new world of advanced technology. Fascinated by the new music trends of the time, Anderson began to play around with synths and electronic instruments. Two years after the release of A, the band released Broadsword And The Beast, which mixed this more electronic approach with the band’s folky aesthetic. Surprisingly, this blend of styles worked rather well, and one can safely say that Jethro Tull won their second battle with the 1980s, even though this victory didn’t come with ease.

Anderson’s arsenal is now larger than before, with vocoders and synthesizers joining the conventional flute and guitar. And yet, beneath these modernistic influences, a majority of the album really consists of folk tunes, not dissimilar to those found on Songs From The Wood and Heavy Horses, albeit injected with contemporary touches. No matter how well the computer-altered vocals of “Clasp” and the synths in the title track try to conceal it, once stripped of the eighties bombast and pomp, the actual melodies really do resemble what the band’s been writing for the past few years.

In truth, the electronic touches are usually quite modest, and, with the exception of the excruciating “Watching Me Never You,” never become particularly obtrusive; indeed, they frequently end up improving the songs. One must admit that the heroic, adventurous title track, for example, wouldn’t even be half as interesting or stirring without the valiant, trumpet-like keyboards.

The synths themselves, while arguably not very much more than a cheap gimmick, don’t end up damaging the album, or at least don’t end up damaging the album very much. Rather, the eighties attitude is what harms Broadsword And The Beast. The incessant chants of “BEASTIE!” on the track of the same name almost entirely ruin the otherwise-delightful song, and “Watching Me Watching You” has, from the pointless chants of “STAIRS!” to the trite, James Bond-inspired lyrics, not an ounce of either originality or quality. Likewise, the hackneyed piano accompaniment makes portions of the warm, sympathetic “Slow Marching Band” seem like a generic eighty’s ballad (a shame really, as this is one of the prettier tracks).

Still, Broadsword And The Beast contains plenty of strong material, and tunes such as the gentle, loving “Pussy Willow” and the bouncy, folky “Clasp” should find their way into the libraries of any fans of the band. The album is usually entertaining, and Anderson‘s experiments with electronic elements end up being mainly successful. The band would continue further down the road into synth-pop, but never would they do it again with this success. Soon, the band would lose significance and become a shadow of their past self, and Broadsword And The Beast shows a thriving, prosperous band about to descend into mediocrity. As they say, you may have won the battle, but not the war.

11. Roots to Branches (1995)

After spending countless years experimenting with new styles and genres, it seems that Jethro Tull started to feel that they’ve already seen everything and tried everything. While occasional songs were still innovative (“Budapest” instantly comes to mind), an alarming portion of the band’s catalog began to rely on nostalgia, rather than quality and originality. One had to believe that Anderson and Co. finally lost their ability to innovate and invigorate, and so directionless, meandering catastrophes like Rock Island were created by the once consistent, focused band. And yet, in 1995, the elderly flutist rediscovered Arabic and Indian music, for the second time in a row regained his ability to write original and entertaining music, and so created Roots To Branches, one of his strongest albums since 1978’s Heavy Horses.

Roots To Branches sees the band moving back towards folk music, but this time, rather than being infused with English and Celtic motifs, the aforementioned Indian and Arabic themes take the upper hand. Consequentially, there’s a fair amount of unorthodox music on this album, and most songs are indescribably refreshing after over a decade of synth-pop and pseudo-metal. Although, it should be noted, despite Jethro Tull once embracing folk music, Martin Barre is glad to drop a heavy, metallic riff or scorching solo whenever he is given the opportunity to do so. Surprisingly, these heavier touches only improve the album and add variety to some of the admittedly-predictable tunes. Throughout the album, the band consistently writes interesting material, and moments such as the jazzy, lively flute solo in “Dangerous Veils” and the soaring, seductive “This Free Will” remind us why anyone paid attention to Jethro Tull in the first place, something that the previous few offerings failed to do.

However, the elderly singer’s voice was, by this point, immensely damaged by age, and so the vocal melodies are never given the opportunity to become as interesting (or, at least, powerful) as on classic albums, such as Thick As A Brick. To hide his ever-weakening voice, Anderson often chooses to add emotive string arrangements, and, although these touches are an obvious crutch for the singer, they work well, and usually hide any vocal imperfections.

The album’s biggest flaw is that a majority of the material is quite monochromatic, and all too many songs resemble each other. As a result, much of the album fades into a blur, and even after repeated listens, one can still occasionally have difficulty differentiating between the many tunes. The only two songs that truly have their own identity amidst the orchestral arrangements and Indian motifs are the kindhearted, nostalgic “Stuck In The August Rain” and the phlegmatic “Another Harry’s Bar.”

Most of the songs are rather long, and due to this, along with their repetitiveness, many of them overstay their welcome. The most notorious offender is the almost-tedious “Another Harry’s Bar,” which, had it been three minutes shorter, would have easily been an album highlight.

And yet, despite these flaws, Roots To Branches is certainly a strong release. Most of it is consistently interesting (even if it never quite reaches the transcendent level of albums such as Heavy Horses), and the album is certainly an excellent (and unexpected) return to progressive rock.

10. This Was (1968)

Jethro Tull was very much a blues band on their debut album, vaguely reminiscent of the Graham Bond Organization only more cohesive, and with greater commercial sense. The revelations about the group’s roots on This Was—which was recorded during the summer of 1968—can be astonishing, even 30 years after the fact. Original lead guitarist Mick Abrahams contributed to the songwriting and the singing, and his presence as a serious bluesman is felt throughout, often for the better: “Some Day the Sun Won’t Shine for You,” an Ian Anderson original that could just as easily be credited to Big Bill Broonzy or Robert Johnson; “Cat’s Squirrel,” Abrahams’ big showcase, where he ventures into Eric Clapton territory; and “It’s Breaking Me Up,” which also features some pretty hot guitar from Abrahams. Roland Kirk‘s “Serenade to a Cuckoo” (the first song Anderson learned to play on flute), their jazziest track ever, is one of the best parts of the album. The drum solo on “Dharma for One” now seems like a mistake, but is understandable in the context of the time in which it was done.

The one number here that everybody knows, “A Song for Jeffrey,” almost pales amid these surroundings, but at the time it was a superb example of commercial psychedelic blues. This would be the last album of its kind by the group, as Abrahams‘ departure and the lure of more fertile inspiration tugged them toward English folk music. Curiously, the audio mix here is better than that on their second album, with a much stronger, harder group sound overall. In late 2001, This Was was reissued in a remastered edition with much crisper sound and three bonus tracks. The jazzy improvisation “One for John Gee” (a reference to the manager of the Marquee Club), the folky “Love Story” (which marked the end of Mick Abrahams‘ tenure with the group), and the novelty piece “Christmas Song” have all been heard before but, more to the point, they’re worth hearing again, especially in the fidelity they have here.

09. Stormwatch (1979)

Stormwatch’s album cover always seemed to me to be rather prophetic of Jethro Tull’s near future. A seafarer clad in a mournful black, raindrops dripping from his ragged beard, defiantly and undauntedly gazes through binoculars into the coming tempest, prepared for the approaching storm. This mariner is not unlike Ian Anderson, whose band was on the very brink of collapse by the time that the album was released. Bassist John Glascock was ailed by a cardiovascular disorder that would soon prove to be deadly and cause drummer Barriemore Barlow to fall into a deep depression (one that would ultimately end with his departure from the band). Furthermore, progressive rock would soon fall out of favor and, to stay relevant, Anderson would be forced to adapt to new music trends, throwing in superfluous synthesizers and vocoders into his music. And yet, despite the impending anguish, the band is just about as focused as ever on Stormwatch, which saw the band leaving the seventies with quite a bang.

Not only did Stormwatch mark the end of Jethro Tull’s seventies output, but it also concluded their so-called “folk trilogy”. Unlike the first two installments, Songs From The Wood and Heavy Horses, which contained light-hearted, pleasant tunes, Stormwatch is quite dark-in fact, it’s arguably the band’s most somber album. Doleful songs of nostalgia, longing and lamentation find themselves in the place of jolly, pleasant ditties about mice reading books and running on treadmills, causing the album to sound much more serious than it’s precursors.

Stormwatch remains quite an interesting album for fans of the band. Not only does it present a darker, more serious side of Anderson’s persona, but it also contains a rather larger amount of compelling, if not incredibly innovative, music. One, however, can’t help feeling that of Jethro Tull’s folk trilogy, Stormwatch is obviously the weakest link.

08. Benefit (1970)

Released in 1970, Benefit is an album that is sometimes lost and overshadowed when placed among other Jethro Tull albums. Fans at the time were most likely a little disappointed by quality of Benefit in comparison to their previous album Stand Up. And soon after It was released, the pure genius of their most popular album to date, Aqualung took anyone except the biggest of Tull fans’ minds off of Benefit. At the time and partly because of the great success of Stand Up, the album sold quite well. However, these days you cannot find the original version in stores. You will instead find a version with the songs “Singing All Day,” “Witch’s Promise,” “Just Trying to Be” and “Teacher.”

On Benefit, Jethro Tull decided to write darker, more serious music. As a result, the album comes across as uncharacteristically somber and cynical, almost dishearteningly so. At first glance, the playfulness and humor that made Jethro Tull so enjoyable is almost entirely absent. On later albums, Jethro Tull would learn to include songs like “The Tale Of The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles” or “Locomotive Breath” to offset the gloomy mood set by the more serious tunes, but this never happens on Benefit (with the exception, arguably, being “To Cry You A Song.” It’s still cynical, but, at the very least, it’s upbeat). Consequentially, it’s much harder to listen to Benefit than any another pre-Thick As A Brick album, which is really quite a shame, as much of the material on this album is rather strong, once one gets acquainted with it.

After some brief experimentation with folk music on Stand Up, Anderson decided to go further in this direction, and so a surprising portion of Benefit is acoustic. This decision yielded some stunningly pretty songs, most notably “Sossisty; You’re A Woman,” with it’s haunting flute leads and sardonic melodies.

Without learning from the mistakes made on this album, classics such as Aqualung and Thick As A Brick would have arguably never been made, or would have been, at the least, infinitely less enthralling.

07. Stand Up (1969)

Jethro Tull’s first album, This Was, was certainly an admirable debut and a very enjoyable listen. It served its purpose and established the band as a strong blues quintet. However, the album lacked diversity and, aside from Ian Anderson’s flute, not much separated Jethro Tull from the multitude of other competent blues ensembles. This, of course, was forgivable for the debut album, but it became clear that the band would have to establish their own distinctive, original style if they wanted to stand out amidst the hordes of other performers. And so, Anderson and his fellow troubadours began to experiment with a large variety of styles, while still remaining firmly rooted in blues-rock. This soon gave birth to the eclectic Stand Up, a fantastically multifaceted and lighthearted album that marks Jethro Tull’s pinnacle as a blues band.

Indeed, Stand Up’s songs are mainly divided into two distinct categories: pure, unadulterated hard-rockers and more unorthodox compositions. The former category consists of raw, boisterous tunes such as “A New Day Yesterday” and “Driving Song.” Filled with infectious, assertive riffs and jaunty flute leads, these tunes thrill and excite with ease. Martin Barre, the recently-initiated guitarist, adds a heavier and grittier edge to the bluesy songs, giving the band newfound vitality, and these upbeat tunes contain impossible amounts of energy and charisma.

And yet, Stand Up’s most interesting portions are those in which the band toys with various styles and tries to inject the tired and true blues formula with some vitality and originality. Innovative songs such as “Fat Man,” which sees the band flirting with lively sitars and Indian motifs, and “Sweet Dream,” with its tempo changes and breathtaking orchestral arrangements, see the band pushing their compositional and musical abilities to the very limits. Also worth noting is “Bouree,” a jazzy, wild reinterpretation of a piece by J.S. Bach that soon became a staple of the band’s live show.

06. A Passion Play (1973)

A Passion Play, like Thick As A Brick, is an ambitious work consisting of one forty minute-long song. Like the title suggests, this work indeed resembles a passion play, depicting death, ascension to heaven, and reincarnation, with a frivolous interlude separating two halves of the work. The lyrics are, as is to be expected of Ian Anderson, are impossibly overblown and theatrical, but, surprisingly, rarely come across as being overly pretentious.

Soft acoustic guitars, playful pianos, jovial keyboards, frantic flutes, and passionate vocals intertwine intricately throughout A Passionate Play, playing some of Jethro Tull’s prettiest melodies. Ian and his merry minstrels choose to make the tone a bit more gloomy and dark (while still maintaining their typical lightheartedness), but aside from this, the songwriting remains largely unchanged. And yet, none of it is quite as potent or enthralling as albums like Thick As A Brick or Songs From The Wood. Frankly, the catchy parts aren’t as catchy as the former, and the beautiful bits aren’t as beautiful as the latter.

A Passion Play comes incredibly close to becoming tedious, but one thing alone saves it from this fate: “The Story Of A Hare Who Lost His Spectacles.” This brief interlude splits the composition into two halves and provides a light, carefree break that gives the listener some time to relax. Without this short intermission, the mammoth album would become an overwhelming affair that would only tire the listener. As it stands, although, not only does this small tale make A Passion Play more manageable, but it is also one of Jethro Tull’s most comic moments. Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond and his pompous accent narrate this aimless yarn, emphasizing every other word (except for the ones that should be emphasized). Overly grandiose orchestral arrangements accompany a simple tale of hares, owls, and newts, causing the whole affair to be so overelaborate that it becomes impossibly amusing.

05. Songs from the Wood (1977)

It’s nice to have places like the English countryside. Amidst the frantic noise and disorganized confusion of modern life, knowing that such calm, tranquil places still remain brings much solace. Instead of looming, hulking buildings, hurrying cars, and seas of people haphazardly rushing to get somewhere, there are serene fields, small, still cottages, and lush forests. Never, unlike in cities, is there an air of hostility or haste, but rather there is a perennial peacefulness and placidity. After releasing Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young To Die! (which was swiftly devoured and maimed by ravenous critics), Jethro Tull’s frontman, Ian Anderson, was finally able to escape to the countryside, which led to the release of the folky Songs From The Wood, his most pleasant and pretty composition thus far.

Let me bring you songs from the wood,
to make you feel much better than you could know.

From those first words, phlegmatically sung a cappella, one can tell that Songs From The Wood is certainly different from Jethro Tull’s previous effort, the loud, rowdy Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young To Die!. It’s quite obvious that the band was always inspired by folk music, but never before has this influence manifested itself to such an extent. The lively minstrel, Ian Anderson, sings melodies that would not seem out of place in an Elizabethan court, accompanied by lovely flute leads and delightful acoustic guitar play only helps to conjure up images of forests and meadows. Although Songs From The Wood does show Jethro Tull going in a more acoustic-oriented direction, guitarist Martin Barre makes sure that his input remains significant, as his soaring riffs and solos can be often seen intertwining with Anderson’s acoustic guitar or flute. Lyrically, the album also is more woodsy, as the songs now speak of things like fireplaces and aimless trips through woodlands, a sharp contrast to Anderson’s ancient musings on London life and bitter attacks on organized religion.

Indeed, Jethro Tull seem to be in their natural element playing folk-rock, and so Songs From The Wood is their most unforced album in years. Not only does it never feel like the band struggles to sound genuine and sincere, but it is irrefutable that Anderson and Co. truly enjoy playing this bright, cheerful music (something that can’t be said about a large amount of the Tull discography).

While parts of Songs From The Wood show Jethro Tull at their most adventurous, experimenting with beautiful orchestration and innumerable tempo and mood changes, much of the songwriting comes across as immature. Compositions such as the forgettable “Ring Out Solstice Bells” only manage to meander and overstay their welcome and, while certainly pretty, many of the melodies simply aren’t particularly interesting or enthralling.

Songs From The Wood is (not without reason) the first Jethro Tull album in ages that received a noteworthy amount of positive feedback from professional critics. Happy that for the first time in years, one of their albums was well received, Jethro Tull would continue down this direction with their next two albums, Heavy Horses and the underwhelming Stormwatch. With their next release, the compositions would become more concise and would nearly never descend into aimless drivel, as they often tend to do here. As such, while certainly worthy of a purchase, Songs From The Wood cannot be recommended with the same fervor as its successor.

04. Minstrel in the Gallery (1975)

After A Passion Play, an ambitious and nearly indigestible progressive composition, was massacred by wrathful music critics, Jethro Tull decided to return to playing shorter, more accessible music. This resulted in the release of War Child, which saw the band trying to achieve mainstream success, but the album gathered even more hatred and condemnation (which was not, this time, entirely undeserved) from the press. Picking the lesser of two evils, the band chose to once again play progressive rock, and soon created Minstrel In The Gallery, which was not only a fitting return to form, but also is one of the most engaging constituents of Jethro Tull’s discography.

Minstrel In The Gallery relies far less on Martin Barre’s acidic and gritty guitar than previous offerings; instead folky melodies clearly inspired by Elizabethan music are the album’s main attraction, and Ian Anderson’s acoustic guitar, along with David Palmer’s tasteful orchestral arrangements are given a far larger role than usual. One could easily imagine the first half of “Cold Wind To Valhalla,” with it’s spirited acoustic strums and pleasant melodies, or the mournful, sentimental “Requiem,” among other tunes, being played in a royal court some four or five hundred years ago.

One should not, however, fall under the impression that Minstrel In The Gallery contains only calm, folky songs—far from it! The untameable Martin Barre still has many opportunities (albeit, not as many as on preceding albums) to inject even the most subdued tunes with bursts of wild energy and ferocious vigor, and moments such as the howling leads in the second portion of “Cold Wind To Valhalla” or the desperate, wailing solo in “Black Satin Dancer” (which would have been quite at home on a Led Zeppelin album) show the virtuoso in his prime.

One of Minstrel In The Gallery’s biggest strengths is knowing when to use, or, rather, when not to use, Martin Barre’s guitar. When allowed to play, he energizes any song and gives it a heavier, rawer feel, but he is wisely kept away from tunes such as “Requiem,” which are all the better for it. As a result, the album is divided into robust, hard rockers that are infused with melodious acoustic moments, and folky, mellow songs, like the melancholic “One White Duck/010=Nothing At All.”

Most of the album’s highlights fall into the former category, largely due to the unpredictable changes from acoustic to electric instrumentation which add indescribable amounts of appeal to the tunes. “Cold Wind To Valhalla,” an acoustic tune that suddenly explodes into a shrieking aural assault, and “Baker St. Muse,” a sixteen-minute long epic made up of many distinct, unique sections, are the album’s centerpieces along with the title track, a pleasant ditty that soon transforms into a corrosive, metallic monster.

Indeed, the album has no weak moments, aside from the entirely superfluous “Grace,” a thirty second tune about wishing “Good morning!” to all the Suns, birds, ladies, and breakfasts in the world. It’s really a shame that the piece ends so abruptly, for if it were further developed, it could easily have become quite an entertaining number.

Minstrel In The Gallery saw Jethro Tull once again doing what they do best: playing progressive rock laced with the occasional folky melody; indeed, for the first time in their career, the acoustic moments became the focal points of their music. Two years later, Songs From The Wood would see the band incorporating a Celtic influence into their music, and then, with the release of Heavy Horses, Barre’s electric guitar would be almost entirely abolished. As it stands, though, Minstrel In The Gallery skillfully balances warm folk tunes with hard rock, making it one of the band’s more interesting and accessible progressive albums.

03. Heavy Horses (1978)

While the band plays skilfully on almost all of their albums, their performance on Heavy Horses is remarkable and, frankly, on of the band’s best. Ian Anderson‘s vocals are the best of his career, and he displays a large variety of emotions throughout the album. He can be playful on songs such as “One Brown Mouse,” nostalgic and energetic, as seen throughout the title track, and valiant on songs such as “Weathercock.” Most notably, he sounds convincing and genuine on every song. This album also features his most heartfelt and sincere performance of his entire career on the song “Moths.” Anderson‘s flute playing is prominently displayed throughout the album’s ten songs, and he is given some fantastic and moving solos which further strengthen the band’s unique sound and help establish them as one of the most diverse progressive acts.

Martin Barre, one of the most underrated blues guitarists, once again offers an exemplary performance. His solos are powerful and melodic, as are his riffs, and his unique style of guitar playing provides a perfect accompaniment to Ian Anderson‘s softer acoustic guitar, flute, and voice. However, his work is not a focal point of this album, as the band chose to write more soft songs, causing a smaller reliance on electric instruments. However, wherever Barre shows up, he is most definitely welcomed, and he has some fantastic leads, such as the hard rock solo at the end of “Weathercock” or the crushing blues rock epic that is “No Lullaby.”

The title track, “Heavy Horses,” is undoubtedly supposed to be the focal point of the album. Clocking in at just under nine minutes, this is one of Tull‘s most passionate songs, and it showcases the talent of each of the band members. The song frequently changes moods, from peaceful to nostalgic, and then it crescendos into a violin-driven climax, calming down again, but then ending fiercely.

02. Aqualung (1971)

After the release of Stand Up, an eclectic melting pot of various styles, and Benefit, which saw the band dabbling in folk music, Jethro Tull was in very much a similar predicament. The British blues band found themselves about to make what may be the defining decision of their career: they were about to throw themselves into the chasm known as progressive rock.

On Aqualung Jethro Tull still didn’t entirely get into progressive territory (although the unpredictable stylistic changes of the title track, among other such moments, occasionally seem to indicate otherwise), but the band is now not only more comfortable with experimenting than on previous albums, but is also not afraid to make more daring gambles. While Stand Up certainly did see the band flirting with different styles, Ian Anderson and his jovial jongleurs never before were bold enough to do something like writing a gospel song or playing a prolonged flute solo with no accompaniment aside from a Gregorian chant.

The constant experimentation results in Aqualung being the most diverse album of Jethro Tull’s career. Bold, hard-rocking tunes such as “Locomotive Breath” find themselves among songs such as the folky, playful “Mother Goose” and the tender, affectionate “Wond’ring Aloud” (arguably Tull’s most beautiful composition). With no warning, guitarist Martin Barre’s vibrant electric onslaught can give way to calm, acoustic chords or zestful, effervescent flute leads. And yet, despite the incredible variety of moods and genres mingled on Aqualung, the album never feels disjointed or incoherent.

What’s surprising about Aqualung is that the large, sprawling compositions, such as the title track and “Wind Up,” are in no way the most captivating. Indeed, the focal points are actually the brief, mellow pieces crammed in between the more complex songs. As awe-inspiring as “My God” may be, even it can’t hold it’s ground against the minuscule “Cheap Day Return’s” irresistible, nostalgic melody or “Slipstream’s” wistful, evocative tune, accompanied by Anderson’s most elegiac and touching lyrics.

Lyrically, Aqualung is Jethro Tull’s finest moment. The first portion of the album consists of descriptions of six various personages: a benevolent, kindhearted nurse, a youthful woman of questionable repute, a grimy, perverted old man, and many other characters appear for us to observe. While the lyrics on the first half of the album are certainly interesting and fit the music well, the band’s lyrical genius really shines on the succeeding part, which is about Anderson’s views on religion. Notwithstanding his belief in the existence of a supreme being, the spirited singer expresses a strong disapprobation of organized religion. Despite the subject mater of the songs, it rarely seems like Anderson imposes his beliefs upon the listeners and, fortunately, the lyrics are lighthearted and humorous enough to not bore those that couldn’t care any less about faith.

With Aqualung, Jethro Tull finally created an entirely satisfying album. Catchy, diverse, and daring, it’s unsurprising that the album was the band’s most successful album. And yet, despite this accessibility, Aqualung manages to be complex and intelligent. The following year, Anderson and his bold balladeers would take the plunge into progressive rock, creating their masterwork, Thick As A Brick (more about it in a bit). As it stands, Aqualung not only shows a band on the brink of revolutionizing the genre, but is an incredibly enjoyable and essential album.

01. Thick as a Brick (1972)

Critics and Ian Anderson never got along very well. During the worst of times, the minstrel was martyred by the media for his almost-unreasonably ambitious music, and during the best of times, the critics lauded him with praise and he still found something to be unhappy about. The latter situation occurred upon the release of Aqualung: the album was generally well-received, but Anderson found himself displeased by (or perhaps amused at) the critic’s incessant labelling of the work as a concept album. “If the critics want a concept album we’ll give the mother of all concept albums,” said Anderson, and thus was birthed Thick As A Brick, one of the greatest progressive rock albums.

From the very start, Anderson’s goal was to create the most grandiose, pompous oeuvre that could be made. It’s safe to say that, in this respect, Thick As A Brick is an astounding success: the forty minute-long songs is an amalgam of everything from harpsichords to electric guitars and jazz flutes, tempo changes permeate the album, and the band switches genres on a dime, with folky flutes instantaneously giving way to scorching blues guitars and exuberant organs. Despite this, the album never becomes a meandering, unfocused mess like most other similar endeavors (the album’s successor, A Passion Play is, while quite enjoyable, a perfect example of such a mess), and every single melody is refined to absolute perfection.

Thick As A Brick’s orchestration is certainly daring (trumpets, strings, and even a timpani find their way into the album), but one can’t help feeling that the actual melodies, stylistically, aren’t very different from standard Tull fare. Despite the layers of instruments, the listener’s focus is always directed to the folky tunes that are hidden underneath the virtuosic drums and layers of countless instruments.

Lyrically, the album is every bit as overblown as it is musically: youths build castles, poets and painters cast shadows upon oceans crossed by discolored infantry, and ancient tribal legends lie cradled in calls of seagulls; in other words, the lyrics are full of bombast. And yet, this doesn’t exactly detract from the experience-quite the opposite, in fact. As pompous as the lyrics are, one can’t deny the skilfulness of Anderson’s writing, and lines such as “Let me help you pick up your dead as the sins of the father are fed/with the blood of the fools and/the thoughts of the wise” are penned with such a poeticism that pretension is easily forgiven. Furthermore, such lyrics fit perfectly with the grandiose music, and so, instead of bringing the album down, the texts thus make the opus seem even more epic and monumental.

Truth be told, Thick As A Brick is everything that a progressive rock album should be. Every single melody is memorable and interesting, the music is complex but not overly confusing, and the bombast and pomp only improve the album. Never would the band reach such a peak either in terms of performance or composition (though, on both counts, Heavy Horses and Aqualung would come very close), and so Thick As A Brick remains a timeless classic of progressive rock.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

%d bloggers like this: