[An earlier version of this review appeared on Houseofshred.com in 2001]
Tempest, as a band, is a little hard to describe. They play folk songs, but they are not a folk band. They rock out, but they're much more than a rock band. Think of them this way; take some Jethro Tull and Kansas, throw in a dash of Led Zeppelin, and have them play Celtic and Norwegian folk music flavored with metal and bluegrass. Sounds like kind of a mess but it really works. Call it world music if you like, though it's a little strange to put that handle on a bunch of guys from Oakland, California. Well, okay, the drummer is Cuban and the frontman is Norwegian. In any case, they are highly talented and imaginative musicians who seamlessly blend a morass of musical genres into a fluid blend of eclectic, exciting music.
Frontman Lief Sorbye leads Tempest with smooth yet passionate vocals and a sizzling double mandolin. Sorbye is a very capable singer with a husky tenor voice, and he has perfected his particular style through near-perpetual touring and live performances with Tempest (and the Tempest side project Caliban). The production on this disc give a natural feel to his vocals, like sitting in a pub or the market square listening to him, as opposed to the often over-produced digitally modified vocals that are the norm on most recording these days. One gets the impression not of a rock singer, but of a tavern minstrel who plays for the love of the music (and perhaps a pint of ale), as opposed to riches and fame. His natural vocal style helps accentuate the flavor of the old-world lyrics and melodies that form the core of their sound.
Guitarist Todd Evans and fiddler Jim Hurley work around Sorbe's mandolin to create energetic swirling patterns that run from soft lyrical patois on songs like "Wicked Spring" and "Journeyman," to fiery metallic intensity on "Dance of the Sand Witches" and the Appalachian-bluegrass infused "Battle Mountain Breakdown." Bassist William Maxwell and drummer Adolfo Lazo provide the solid foundation required to back up the diverse collection of sounds that Tempest explores.
On Balance, Tempest offers up an outstanding set of their private blend of Euro-centric folk music and string-oriented prog-rock. The way they muddy the boundaries between musical genres is part of the appeal of this band. Balance is indeed an apt title, as all of their many influences co-exist in equal measure, where the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.