Magna Carta Records, 1998

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Though I don't listen to it as much as I'd like to, I love Irish and Celtic music. The folkiness of the melodies, the lightness of the songs (even if the lyrics are singing about something dark), the calm-to-frantic strumming of the mandolins and bowing of the fiddles - what's not to love about it?

Lief Sorbye and Michael Mullen, two-fifths of the band Tempest, branched out to record as Caliban, promoting a music that is not as much Irish as it is Celtic. (Funny to note that neither member is from the auld sod; Sorbye is from Norway, and Mullen is from... Fresno. Go figure.) Their self-titled debut features some music that makes you want to get up and dance a drunken jig, but it also makes you long for the backing of a full band.

Make no mistake, Sorbye and Mullen are incredibly capable musicians. Sorbye switches off on octave-mandolin, mandolin, bodhran and (though I admit I couldn't hear it) harmonica, and both men are very good singers. But when you hear Robert Barry lend his talents on bass and keyboards, you almost wish that Caliban's sound was a bit fuller. Octave-mandolin and fiddle are fine, but I do miss a touch of drums and tin whistle - then again, this is all a matter of taste, and doesn't distract from the music itself.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Both Sorbye and Mullen also show their songwriting talents, though they stick to composing music to traditional lyric sets - not that this is a bad thing, mind you. I have yet to hear a variation on the "John Barleycorn" theme that I haven't liked, and "Bold John Barleycorn" is as good as any I've heard. Ironically, the instrumentals are often the most powerful selections on Caliban; the four-reel "Tipsy Sailor" starts off slowly, but works itself into a glorious frenzy - you can almost see the subject in question go from slowly staggering away from a bar to ending up dancing madly in the middle of the saloon.

This is not to say that the songs with vocals are weak - though one wonders what possessed Caliban to select a Richard Thompson song ("Beeswing") to cover. "What Put The Blood?" is done well a capella, while "The Journeyman" is an interesting and charming selection. The highlight is a Norweigan folk song, "Jeg Lagde Meg Så Silde," which I would have assumed was in Gaelic had I not read the liner notes.

So with all the words of praise for Caliban, could there be any negative points? In one sense, I do wish that this disc had been a little more - how can I word it? - hard-core Celtic. Despite the reliance on traditional songs and instruments, there still is a sense of laid-back California style to this disc that doesn't always feel natural. Maybe fleshing out the sound a bit with other instruments would have helped this, I don't know. Besides that, it occasionally is easy to lose your focus when you're listening to this disc - it almost beckons you to allow it to play in the background. I'm not sure I like that; I prefer to have what I listen to up front requiring at least partial concentration. Maybe it's that Caliban is hypnotic in a sense.

By no means is Caliban a bad disc; for fans of Celtic music, this will provide great enjoyment, and I believe that Sorbye and Mullen will only continue to get better at their craft. But is it wrong to suggest that this album could have been a little more Celtic?

Rating: B

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© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Magna Carta Records, and is used for informational purposes only.