REVIEW: The Steel Wheels’ “Over the Trees” is Primary Rhythms and Organic Melodies

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The Steel Wheels’ latest release Over The Trees (Big Ring Records) was produced by Sam Kassirer and recorded in Maine; the band is Trent Wagler (guitar/banjo), Eric Brubaker (fiddle), Brian Dickel (bass), Jay Lapp (guitars/mandolin) and Kevin Garcia (percussion/keyboards).  Special guests are Matt Douglas on woodwinds, and Sam Kassirer on piano and keys.

Banjo and stringed instruments have been part of and have made their way into various genres: in folk and Americana music, and of course bluegrass, and also in indie pop, and beyond.  The Steel Wheels’ new album pushes further in stringed instrument experimentation and sets up traditional mountain bluegrass instruments on an irresistible, very groovy rhythmic foundation.

Percussion and rhythm are primary for Over the Trees, and the harmonious melodies weave in and out as an organic part of them as they consider fundamentals of the contemporary human condition.

“When the Rains Come” packs a powerful punch as it sets up a driving rhythm, and before you know it there are horns in the mix.  This song is a modern day Noah’s ark song, and a disturbing link with the current situation of climate change.

“Keep On” treats you to tribal rhythms in multiple layers with riveting vocal harmonies and the sorrowful “keep on my brother, I will not be around to watch you grow.” “Falling” changes it up this time as the banjo does a solo melody line leading in to a more folksy vocal space.

“Something New” is austere and ominous acoustic guitar with jingle stick bells, as it highlights mantra and meditation, as does “Get to Work,” which is a vibe that exposes the voices in your head, and starts off with percussive clicking delights.  It is also a shocking, “snap out of it” song that identifies the repetition that we are trapped in, by necessity, on a daily basis with our scheduling, and our plans.

Then “I’ll Be Ready” changes it up again with piano and percussive clicks, moving into electric guitar and then a harpsichord sound toward the end with a rising vocal energy. This one is a profound tearjerker that taps in to a sense of profound longing, and evokes the alarming rate of the passage of time

“Time to Rest“ is a hybrid crossover between an easy 1970s country song and the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.”  “Road Never Ends” launches itself with genuinely haunting “oooo” vocals like a beckoning from shadows, and hand claps within the multi- layered percussion style.  On this one, you will really feel that eternal sense that the “road never ends.” And there’s rainstick percussion. “This Year” is a solemn a cappella ending to circle back to the harmonious, well-rounded acumen of the band.

Metaphors abound richly throughout the album. For example in “Waiting in the Dark,” the question is “how deep do I have to dig, I can’t stop now” followed by the feverish “I’m losing my mind, but I’m almost there.” And with the opening lines of “This Year” it’s “this year there will be peace.”  In “Fall” the lines are: “it’s another way of healing, feeling like I’m falling'” and “every day we are in the rafters falling for the floor.”

The Steel Wheels’ album One for the Trees is an exploration of various rhythmic instruments and diverse melodic characteristics as each song uniquely highlights a particular sound, while overall the musicianship and the musical styles shine like the North Star in Maine.  Lyrically, the album covers the ground of resolve and hope — sometimes in the face of global adversity and sometimes looking in the mirror of the personal.  The album comes out this Friday July 12 and their Red Wing Roots Festival begins in Virginia.  Check it all out here: https://www.thesteelwheels.com

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