You've probably never heard of Tempest, a lot of people haven't. If you aren't in the Celtic folk scene, the Magna Carta records scene or Scottish/Highland games scene you'll probably never heard of them. You might've seen them if you attended the Philadelphia Folk Festival however.
This isn't to say Tempest is just a unknown local band, they just don't have commercial success, but have a very big following especially among the folks who attend Scottish/Highland games. These games are usually big festivals of Celtic, especially Scottish culture filled with events, crafts, merchandise and music. Tempest plays at many of them.
Tempest formed in Oakland, CA in 1988 by 4 guys Lief Sorbye, Adolfo Lazo, Rob Wullenjohn and Mark Showalter. Many members have come and gone and the current lineup only has Lief and Adolfo from the past.
Their latest record is The Double-Cross
which was released in February of 2006 but they had been playing songs off the album in live shows for quite sometime. This is how I discovered Tempest. I used to dislike them, a lot. Less so because of the music and more so because my parents loved them. But that changed in 2005 when I agreed to attend the Pleasanton Highland Games to become acquainted with my Scottish heritage, and I saw them live. I was amazed. I re listened to all the albums I had and really loved. I saw them two more times that year and one time so far this year with planned shows in September.
But onto the review. The Double-Cross
contains a very tight lineup of members:
Lief Sorbye, from Oslo, Norway, on vocals, double-neck mandolin, and mandolas
Adolfo Lazo, from Havana, Cuba, on drums and percussion
Ronan Carroll, from Dublin, Ireland, on guitar and vocals
Ariane Cape, from Innsbruck, Austria, on bass and vocals
Michael Mullen, from Fremont, California, on fiddle and vocals
This is by far one of the best lineups if not just recorded, but live as well. Ariane is one of the most amazing bassists I've seen and heard. Her on stage chemistry with Lief is amazing. Ronan's guitar playing is engaging and on stage he reminds me of East Bay Ray, nerdy yet cool and wild when he needs be. Michael cannot be matched by any fiddle player.
But this isn't about their live show, it's about the album. A very good album at that. While not their absolute best or my favorite (which I will eventually review) it contains many great catchy and bouncy songs.
The most unique thing about this album is there is 10 songs, 5 with vocals, and 5 instrumentals. And very much like their live show, the instrumentals are used to bridge between each of the songs.
The title of the album comes from the first song, "Captain Kidd", the third pirate song Tempest have done. This song tells the story of Captain William Kidd who lived a life of being double crossed. He was sanctioned by the British government as a privateer, he was eventually declared a pirate and became a wanted man and was sentence to death. When hung, he had to hung twice because the rope broke the first time. The story is compelling and the fiddle line is even more compelling as well as the driving drums. The repetition of "and I sailed and I sailed" keeps a beat going through most of the song, but also can become quite annoying if listened too much. The most unique part of this song is Lief's voice which is a lot less deep and a lot more raspy then it usually is.
The first instrumental isn't a seamless transition, but it opens up with an instrument that no member of Tempest plays, the didgeridoo which is provided by one of their best band friends, the Wicked Tinkers who are a tribal Celtic band who offer some help on various parts of the albums including their bagpipes and drums. "Slippery Slide", like most Tempest instrumentals, is very dominated by Michael's fiddle playing. Also a standard from most Tempest instrumentals is each instrument playing off each other. Michael and Ronan battle a lot, with Ronan playing a catchy riff with no other instruments, then Michael taking over and challenging his guitar line with an equally catchy fiddle line. What's not very prominent in this song is Ariane's bass playing but that is more than made up for in songs like "Hangman" and "Vision Quest"
Speaking of Hangman, that is the next song. This is one that they played live and I found myself always singing it afterwards. It's extremely catchy but also very morbid. It opens with really nice mandolin playing, then bass playing, then the fiddle playing a very slow waltz like tune, which repeats itself throughout the entire song. The actual lyrics are about a man to about to be hung. First his father visits him, and the man asks "Father did you bring the gold and silver to pay my fee", which the father replies that he is here to see him hang "from the Gallows' Tree". This is where Michael's sad little waltz comes in and offers a bridge to the chorus that offers some of the best background vocals in their songs even if it is just ohhhs. The same exchange repeats between the man and his mother, who also will not save him. All hope seems lost for the man. The solo follows the last exchange, again with instruments really playing off each other. This is what makes Tempest live shows so exciting, just watching all the members be in sync with each other. And a lot of their solos will give equal to time to most instruments for a solo and if not in that song, they will get one eventually. The man at the end eventually receives one last visitor, his lover. She has indeed "brought the gold and silver for his fee because she could not bear to see him hang from the Gallows' Tree" What really sticks out about this songs, if I can mention it one more time is the fiddle waltz.
Black Eddy, the second instrumental is also played lived and always played right after Hangman, making it feel like they are one in the same. While the CD doesn't blend them as seamlessly as the live shows do, it's still hard to separate them within your mind. This is a very dancey tune. It is a mix of 4 different songs, 3 of which were written by Lief, the last two being polkas, one traditional and one by Lief. In the linear notes Lief says its the first time he ever attempted to write a polka and I think he did pretty damn good. This one really gets the crowd moving and very rarely at a Tempest show will their not be at least 5 people dancing in front of the stage. Often times this is when most of the members will get off stage and join the audience, Lief usually finding himself on some women's lap. Hearing all the instrument trade offs I can instantly visualize each member doing it while looking at each other to finish. And when it comes time for Adolfo to have his trade, right before the folks, they add the sound of a breaking class for one trade off. I always start bouncing in my seat to the polka parts and I mean who wouldn't. They're great!
The 5th song on the album is probably my least favorite Tempest song of all time. It sounds like a cheesy Hawaiian song in the beginning, and throughout the rest sounds like a cheesy pop song. I think they were going for the poppy sound and hey, maybe it'll get them some fame. But I just don't like it. It sits bad with me especially after seeing the video of the recording session and the members were doing their vocals all together with only just headphones and microphones like they were a boy band with a female member. Sure the song is catchy, but for all the wrong reasons. It isn't Tempest, there is very little Celtic to it, and the hard hitting rock is nowhere to be seen. The highlight for me is probably the harmonica playing because it's done very well and some of the bass work is very nice. But overall the worst song on the album.
But at least it leads into my personal favorite on the album, "Vision Quest". Now this isn't the best song on the album, because it only really showcases one member's talents, but it is my favorite because of that and because of the member it showcases, Ariane. Once I heard this song I nearly fell in love with her because of her talent on the bass and with this song. She wrote it, so of course it will be very bass heavy, mainly her doing tapping (which is very nice to watch). All the other members have decent roles in the song, but it's obvious that Ariane is the center of it all. The one person that probably comes close to her is Michael, but he always manages to, if not completely steal the spotlight, at least a good amount of it. The whole thing isn't a giant bass solo, which if it was I might not like it so much. Even Ronan gets a really talented guitar solo in and Ariane gladly steps to the background for it, as well as Michael's small solo, but nothing compares to the main bass solo, which is everything you want in a bass solo. Lots of groove, good speed, showcasing that a bass is more than just a backing instrument. The final crescendo, theme and riffs really bring the song to a nice close. But not really to a seamless integration with "Per Spelmann"
"Per Spelmann" is unique in that is completely in Norwegian. You'd think only Lief would be singing, being the Norwegian he is. But Ronan joins him in the chorus and does a fantastic job of keeping up with Lief. The song has a really good melody and a pretty good story, which is explained as being about a musician who had one cow and traded it for a fiddle. Of course Michael plays a big role in the song, when I first heard the story I honestly thought Michael was Per Spelmann. You find the song stuck in your head, even if you can't say the words, which I can't.
The next instrumental is probably the loudest thing I've ever heard live. Picture this: the 5 piece that is Tempest joined by 4 big hairy men in kilts, two with huge drums (a bass and a snare), one with bagpipes, and one with a didgeridoo, bombarding you with a wall of sound. That's "Caber Fiedh". Tempest is joined by my absolute favorite live band, Wicked Tinkers. In the wall of noise you'd think the melody would be lost, but the bagpipes do a bang up job keeping that melody alive above the pounding of all the drums. A lot of Tempest is overshadowed by the Tinkers, but not completely lost. Ariane's bass does a pretty good job at standing out. Probably the best part of this instrumental is the didge solo. Who knew so many sounds could come out of one hallowed out stick. What I always thought Tempest was lacking was a good bagpiper, and Aaron Shaw of the Wicked Tinkers fills that void.
The last vocal song, "Eppy Moray" is one I've heard live many times and was anxious to hear recorded and have access to the lyrics. It is a very intriguing story of a woman named Eppy Moray who is stuck in an arranged marriage that she wants no part of. She is kidnapped and her future husband tries to force the priest to marry them with a gun. Willie, her husband to be, eventually takes her away and tries to take her virginity through force, but she triumphs over him and Willie is humiliated in the Highlands. The instruments that back the song add to the song, but do not distract from the actual story. All solos are left to the end after everything has been said. This is a very good idea to make sure the story really gets stuck in the person's head.
The final song is the longest instrumental, clocking in at over 10 minutes, entitled "Wizard's Walk". Live it makes an excellent closure just as it does for the album. Looking at the linear notes, I notice a Van Morrison song, Boffyflow and Spike is included in the instrumental. I don't know the song so I don't know where it is or what it sounds like, but that is an interesting tidbit. The instrumental is again filled with many trade offs and sharing of the spotlight for all members. The song is quite heavy and a little less Celtic that some of the other parts of the album. This instrumental as well as some others really show off why they are on a progressive rock label and are called such. It is a very progressive song, with repeating themes but lots of changing up. My personal favorite part is when Ronan does a little funk sounds on his guitar that are really different than anything he ever plays. Lief also has a really nice harmonica solo. When he first pulled it out live I was blown away that he could play and he could play so well. Adds a nice little bluesy jam feel to the whole song, which is followed by a very mellow guitar solo. I feel myself drifting through a lot of parts. Seeing it live it really brings the show to a nice close and will send you away feeling great.
Overall The Double-Cross
is another fantastic effort from these fine musicians from around the world. It offers many types of music, spreading their genres even further then it already was. They are a great album band, but an even greater live band. And chances are they might even be making a stop near you, if they do so, I implore you to make the effort to see them, you won't be disappointed.