The menacing moan of the string harmony in “Wish the Wars Were All Over.” The melodic swing of “Tribulations.” The smoky-voiced introduction that comes in the form of “The Spirit of Appalachia.” Whether instrumental, lyrical, poetic or plain-spoken, there are no shortage of means through which Appalachian Road Show are committed to conveying their musical message in Tribulation. A versatile display of homespun skill that takes a few pages from bluegrass, country, folk and Americana equally, Tribulation is perhaps the most mature, well-rounded and complete offering this unit has constructed since their initial founding. We’re inspired to dance to a decadent beat in “99 Years and One Dark Day,” embrace the evocative sonic chilliness of “Gospel Train,” wind up being brought in from the rainy rhythm in “Don’t Want to Die in the Storm” and taken back in time to a simpler southern mountain range in “Beneath That Willow Tree.” There’s no pressing the stop button on this tracklist until we’ve heard every colorful stitch of audio pieced together in a flamboyantly communicative set of songs, and compared to some of the other bluegrass-labeled material out at the moment, that makes this LP quite the rare treat to come by.
“Beneath That Willow Tree,” “Sales Tax on the Women” and the fire-starting “Goin’ to Bring Her Back” don’t need any percussion to provide us with a groove anyone can appreciate – honestly, I do think there would’ve been room for drum parts here in any scenario. The string play in Tribulation is so beefy and muscular that the addition of percussive elements anywhere in this sixteen-track collection of songs and stories would have made the entire affair feel redundantly experimental and overstuffed. The vocals meld with the strings beside them all too beautifully in spoken word numbers “The Old World & New Sounds,” “Hardship, Hope, and the Enduring Spirit of Appalachia” ae well as “The Spirit of Appalachia,” with the music producing an additional depth to the statements we’re absorbing that wouldn’t have been present otherwise. Overall, the flow of Tribulation is as much a reason to acquire this LP as its material is on its own; from beginning to end, it sounds like Appalachian Road Show are enjoying a jam session interspersed with a few history lessons between songs.
If tunes like “Goin’ Across the Mountain,” “Hard Times Come Again No More” and the icy preaching of the noise-covered “Rev. Jasper Davis – Old Time Preaching on Tribulations” sample are just a preview of what Appalachian Road Show have still got in store for fans, their continued growth as an underground crew won’t come to an end anytime soon. Designed primarily for bluegrass and Americana aficionados with an ear for the complexities that make both genres so intriguing to the high caliber-consumer, Tribulation isn’t nearly as intimidating as the skillsets of its players are. This is music that was made for the purposes of catharsis, patriotism and pledging respect to the craftsman who came before the Abernathy/Webb partnership ever came together, and in that spirit, you don’t have to be a ‘grass disciple to fall in love with its melodies every time they’re played.