02 Catalina Island
03 Old Man At The Mill
04 Natural Law
05 Byker Hill
08 Winter Night
10 Cruel Brother
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Since forming in 1988, Tempest has delivered a globally-renowned hybrid of high-energy folk-rock fusing Irish reels, Scottish ballads, Norwegian influences and other world music elements. /Shapeshifter/, the group’s tenth album and fifth for Magna Carta, showcases a band at its creative peak. Featuring 10 tracks split 50-50 between original compositions and rocked-up traditional pieces, the album represents a level of finesse and focus that cements Tempest’s status as America’s premier Celtic rock outfit.
“Shapeshifter is the most mature record we’ve made,” said Lief Sorbye, founding member, lead singer and electric mandolinist. “I’ve always tried to achieve an optimal mix of traditional and contemporary musics, and rock and folk. I think this is the closest we’ve ever come. All of the songs and musicians work together naturally. There’s a lot of unity in terms of the record’s stylistic aspects too. Whether listeners are into folk or rock, I think they’ll find something to like about this album.”
The album’s title comes from the track “Carnival” that describes the mythological tale of a man who falls in love with a female shapeshifter. However, the title /Shapeshifter/ also aptly describes the band’s creative philosophy.
“What Tempest does is musical shapeshifting,” explained Sorbye. “We take traditional music forms and recreate them in a more contemporary, progressive mode. The title is also reflected in the fact that the album’s pieces come from a large geographical area, including England, Scotland, Ireland, America and Norway. And often, more than one region’s influences are apparent in a single song.”
Along with Sorbye, the Oakland, CA-based band features founding member Adolfo Lazo (drums, percussion) and recent recruits Sue Draheim (fiddle, viola, harmony vocals), Mark Skowronek (bass, harmony vocals) and Ronan Carroll (electric and acoustic guitars).
“This record truly showcases the band as an ensemble,” said Sorbye. “The group’s new musicians really shine on it. Sue is perfectly suited for our music, particularly given her work with the Albion Band, Richard Thompson and John Renbourn. Ronan is a terrific Irish guitarist who grew up with Celtic music — it’s in his blood. And Mark and Adolfo work incredibly well together as a rhythm section that meshes with the dramatic ebb and flow inherent in our material. It’s by far the best line-up we’ve had to date.”
Another stand-out element on the new album is its lush vocal harmonies.
“The vocals are much more developed on this record than previous releases,” said Sorbye. “The material we chose lent itself to intricate vocal harmonies. The other factor is both Sue and Mark are excellent harmony vocalists. We spent many, many hours working out the vocal arrangements and the results speak for themselves.”
Shapeshifter is the fifth Tempest recording produced by Robert Berry, best known for his work with Three featuring Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer, and melodic rock mainstay Hush.
“Robert is a great producer because he’s an excellent multi-instrumentalist who understands a great deal of musical styles,” said Sorbye. “He also knows the technical side really well. In particular, it was a revolutionary thing for us to make the album with the ProTools HD digital recording system. The record sounds as if it was recorded on top-notch analog equipment, but we benefited from the incredible flexibility ProTools HD offers. Robert is also ideal because he’s got a great personality and knows how to bring out the best in the band — something I think is readily apparent on /Shapeshifter/.”
Track-by-track comments by Lief Sorbye
1. Tamosher (Trad.)
“I first became interested in this song when I saw Alan Reid of the Battlefield Band perform it at the Cambridge Folk Festival in the ‘70s. We wrote some new musical parts and hipped it up. It’s a catchy Celtic folk song that lent itself to a rock and roll treatment well. As for what a Tamosher is, let’s just say it’s what a Scotsman keeps under his kilt.”
2. Catalina Island (Sorbye)
“Catalina Island is a beautiful resort I visited in Los Angeles last year and this upbeat tune medley reflects some great memories I have from that time. It features three tunes with all kinds of melodic twists and turns. For instance, there’s an Indian scale in the piece, but it’s incorporated into the overall Celtic feel.”
3. Old Man at the Mill (Trad.)
“This is a traditional American roots piece — a 19^th Century work song from the Appalachian mountains. Tempest has never recorded anything from America before. Many people from the British Isles who settled in America chose the Appalachian Mountains as their home. They wrote songs that related to their roots, but reflected the new world as well — an idea also inherent in the Tempest philosophy.”
4. Natural Law (Sorbye/Reynolds)
“Natural Law refers to the indigenous intelligence of nature. If you support nature, it will also support you. And we all know what happens when you go against nature. The song reflects that idea that each individual is connected to the rhythm of nature. It also has the elements of a good pop song, but keeps the substance of Celtic roots music.”
5. Byker Hill (Trad.)
“This traditional English coal mining song was popularized by Dave Swarbrick and Martin Carthy, as well as a group called The Young Traditions. We’re always looking to work in the traditional domain, but giving it contemporary validity via new arrangements and melodic elements. It’s a fresh viewpoint on a much loved piece.”
6. Carnival (Sorbye/Reynolds)
“Co-written with my wife Patricia, this mythology-based piece is about a man who falls in love with a Carnival woman who is a shapeshifter. The song inspired the album’s title and is the first acoustic piece we’ve recorded in a very long time. It also represents the shapeshifting nature of album in that we wanted to make it as diverse as possible.”
7. Coalminers’ (Trad.)
“This set of three traditional Irish reels was something Sue and I started playing in the acoustic Tempest offshoot band Caliban. It’s a real crowd favorite. The pieces have a great live energy we felt would work well within the rockier Tempest format. We feel we really captured that live vibe in the studio.”
/8. Winter Night (Skowronek)
“A song written by our bassist Mark Skowronek and inspired by thoughts of December in New England. It’s the first song we’ve done where the mandolin serves as the basic rhythm instrument. The tune also features some nice interplay between guitar and fiddle, giving it a nice, lush feel.”
9. Fjellmannjenta (Sorbye/Trad.) [pronounced fyehl-mann-yenta]
“There’s always been a strong relationship between Celtic and Norwegian music, so pieces like this blend well with our style and repertoire. I also always like to include a piece of native Norwegian music from my own background on every record. So, I wrote a new melody for a traditional lyric and gave it the Tempest treatment. Fjellmannjenta is a mountain girl with a great appetite for dancing, food and drink — something a lot of Tempest fans can relate to.”
10. The Cruel Brother (Trad.)
“I’d been looking for a good, epic murder ballad that hasn’t been done to death and finally found one. I love how folk songs can paint a picture of the human condition. This one is also notable because it’s followed by three instrumental tunes, including ‘The Tempest Reel’ — which is the piece I took the band’s name from.”