Tempered Steel

“a metallic-insect symphony 
 of disturbing beauty”


Cover art by Frank Junk


"Avant guitarist Dennis Rea, Ffej, and instrument builder Frank Junk update and electrify the thumb piano, an ancient African instrument of flattened nails, wood, and hollowed-out, dried gourd. Tempered Steel dubs out, distorts, and layers gentle tones into blipping polyrhythmic soundscapes." – Christopher DeLaurenti, The Stranger

"Tempered Steel—a Seattle trio featuring Dennis Rea, Ffej, and Frank Junk—use enhanced thumb pianos to create a strange strain of otherworldly exotica, a metallic-insect symphony of disturbing beauty. This is music that begs to be heard on a continuous loop, like one of those Buddha Machines." – Dave Segal, The Stranger

"What can one say about a band that improvises on electrified kalimbas run through all of the effects boxes and “footpedals” that are used for electric guitars? Adjectives fail here – one simply has to experience this experience to experience it… The music, which was not as loud as expected from its amplification, was gorgeous, rhythmic, scintillating, and hypnotic; at times an explosion of simultaneous Afropop dance riffs, at other times an ambient haze (with chord-splitters) reminiscent of Jon Hassel or the musique-concrète of Paul Dresher. Their set lasted for about forty minutes, a continuous kaleidoscopic interlacing of melody, sound, and rhythm. The three of them seemed to have different parts (I don’t know if they’ve worked this out in advance, attempting to set conventions for this completely new type of music, or whether it merely comes from their individual personalities as musicians): Dennis Rea (stage right) used the most effects, including sampling loops and singing into his kalimba; Ffej (center) seemed to provide most of the melodic material, and Frank Junk (stage right) acted as the bass, providing most of the underpinnings. He also hand-built most of the instruments, Ffej later told me. My descriptions fail, however; this was totally unique music, unlike anything I’ve ever heard. I hope it is a new genre that becomes a trend – it is, besides being a cutting-edge experiment, catchy enough to filter into the mainstream." – S.E. Scribner, The Sound Scroll

Now roughly 20 years young, Tempered Steel features Ffej, Frank Junk, and Dennis Rea playing amplified, electronically enhanced thumb pianos. The trio thumbs its collective nose at musical convention with seamless improvisations conjuring everything from phantom harpsichords and subterranean percussion to vintage musique concrete. The group has played Seaprog, the Olympia Experimental Music Festival, Northwest Folklife Festival, the Zero-G Concert Series, and scads of underground haunts in the Pacific Northwest. Recommended to partisans of Harry Partch, John Cage's prepared piano music, and Konono No. 1. Tempered Steel's eponymous album is available through the usual streaming services. 

Tempered Steel live at the Chapel 08.08.08

Tempered Steel

Tempered Steel improvises live at Seattle's Chapel Performance Space, 08.08.08. Frank Junk, Ffej, Dennis Rea: amplified and processed thumb pianos (kalimbas) Recorded and balanced by H.T. Waterman

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