From the moment that those first few string-born sounds come creeping through our speakers up until the second they disappear behind a vocal harmony as tall as the very mountains its predecessors were conceived in, Appalachian Road Show’s Tribulation is almost sure to entice anyone who gives it a listen. Tribulation begins with an introduction in “The Spirit of Appalachia” that immediately sets the tone for every bit of musical magic soon to follow in the next fifteen tracks. Moments like this, “The Old World & New Sounds,” “Wars. Torn Asunder” and “Hardship, Hope, and the Enduring Spirit of Appalachia” might not feel conventional to the non-bluegrass fan, but to those who appreciate the culture this music is indebted to, they’re as integral to the underlying narrative of the record as any of the actual songs are. “Goin’ Across the Mountain” reminds us of the historical aspect of the material we’re listening to, while “Beneath That Willow Tree” sounds oddly contemporary for being the property of the Smithsonian Folkways. This isn’t your average bluegrass album by any critical measurement; for better or worse, Appalachian Road Show’s Tribulation is a standalone piece of musical theater that is especially thrilling for audiophiles and Americana buffs the same.
In “The Appalachian Road,” this band proves that they don’t have to rely on their gilded vocal harmonies as the lone means of conveying a message to the audience here. Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” just might be the most emotional song I’ve heard from the group in their time together thus far, but it definitely doesn’t cast an impassible shadow over more stoic material like “Gospel Train” at all – the opposite, actually. The wide-ranging content in this LP makes it so captivating even in a casual context, and whether it be the swaggering swing of “Goin’ to Bring Her Back” or the more determined march of “Don’t Want to Die in the Storm,” there’s never an instance where it sounds like Appalachian Road Show are forcing the feelings in their music. They came into this record with virtually no pressure considering how well their last album did, but somehow, they were able to press a thoroughly urgent LP in Tribulation as if their very lives depended on it.
“99 Years and One Dark Day” has a strangely relaxed energy to its otherwise jittery rhythm (perhaps because of the band’s comfortability with the pace of the music), and I think this song might be the best exhibit of their juxtaposition of themes, and for that matter, genres in this album. Sure, it might not be as fun and friendly as “Sales Tax on the Women,” nor as sizzling with tension as the spoken sermon excerpt “Rev. Jasper Davis – Old Time Preaching on Tribulations” are, but in my opinion, its evenhanded amalgamation of aesthetics tells me everything I need to know about this group’s core identity. No matter how dark their sound gets, such as within the four and a half minutes that “Wish the Wars Were All Over” lasts, Appalachian Road Show always create an artistic equilibrium in their music. There’s always light on the other side of the highest and bleakest of mountain peaks, and I believe this could be the ultimate point Tribulation was meant to make to its audience.
by Bethany Page