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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Album Review - Across Tundras: Sage

Amidst the vast expanse of the Great Plains, the heat choked silence of the Chihuahuan Desert and the majestic beauty of the Southernmost Rocky Mountains, a lonesome aura haunts the Southwestern United States. And if that lonesomeness were somehow given a voice, it would be that of Across Tundras’ vocalist/guitarist Tanner Olson. You see, with their latest album Sage, this Nashville based trio, which also includes Matt Shively on bass and Nathan Rose on drums, has managed to put that overwhelming sense of desolate magnificence to music, and the results are…well…staggering.

Take the album opener, “In the Name of River Grand” for example. The song is a perfect introduction to the genre blending style that the band purveys as they mingle twangy, countrified guitars with a steady rhythmic backbone and crash cymbals loud enough to mimic thunder out over the horizon. And yes those are the hairs standing up on the back of your neck when Olson sings “the ghosts in these lands have nowhere to hide” and with one sinister riff, you hear the band cross right on over into doom territory. But then right around the halfway point of this opus, Across Tundras manage to reel the song back into a steady jingle jangle, as Olson sings “slow gallop through west Texas”. And this goes on until the vocalist finishes telling his tale as he croons “under a big sky rolling and tumbling I go…ten dead floating…in the Gulf of Mexico”, at which point the trio erupts into a demonic mariachi style jam session that’ll leave you wondering whether to bang your head or scream “yee-fucking-haw” at the top of your lungs. My bet is that you’ll end up doing both.

The aptly titled “Hijo de Desierto” (Spanish for “son of the desert”) is seemingly an ode to some poor soul stranded in a scorched wasteland…“broke down in the desert sun…rattlesnake dead on the road”. The song has a slow, swooning quality to it, like a man stumbling through the desert. Here, Olson’s lyrics perfectly match that imagery as he sings “with lungs on fire…every night I dream of water…cool, clear water”.

“Buried Arrows” is a straight up shit kickin’ country and western boot stomper that features rhythmic, almost tribal drums, a loosely plucked gee-tar and a truly beautiful vocal accompaniment courtesy of Lilly Hiatt. The song (one of my personal favorites) brings to mind Loretta Lynn if she were doing a duet with the spirit of Jim Morrison…while under the influence of peyote. I promise it’ll have you singing along when Olson and his companion harmonize “buried arrows on broken bows…like in the days of the buffalo”.

"The Book of Truth" is kind of like what it might sound like if Electric Wizard took the stage to spread their blasphemy at the Grand Ole' Opry…country music's most hallowed and sacred ground. The song continues to seamlessly blend the bright sounds of Olson's Fender Stratocaster…a staple of country music…with the ultra heavy riffs most often associated with doom. It's as if the band is wrestling with two personalities…one good and one evil…and they can only contain the latter for so long.

Which brings me to "Tchulu Junction", where Across Tundras seems to want to remind everyone where their evil hearts truly reside. The song trudges along for a couple of minutes and then Olson's vocals get downright wicked as he roars "selling my soul…blood on the crossroads". All the while Shively and Rose barrel aimlessly ahead with their heavy low end and devastating drums respectively. It's unclear whether Olson is singing about the infamous deal that legendary blues guitarist Robert Leroy Johnson supposedly made with the devil or if he's singing about himself when he wails "I made a pledge on faith one day…my soul I give for the skill to play".

And even though "Mean Season Movin' On" and "Shunka Sapa" are the final two songs on Sage, they actually take up the final twenty one minutes of the album. The former is another fine example of the majestic aural landscape created by Across Tundras, interweaving the trebly country guitars with balls out, no nonsense groove and powerful vocals. The latter is an instrumental that serves the album well as its closer, carrying you through one last ridge of musical peaks and valleys…it is a musical celebration of this band's genre defying sound and it will ultimately ride you off into the sunset with teary eyes and ringing ears.

On Sage, Across Tundras have created the soundtrack to a scorpion sting…to the mirage of a desert oasis…to the wind blowing across the tall grass of an empty prairie. This music is a tribute to the overwhelming vastness of the American west…hell, to America in general. This is country…this is rock…and this is metal, all rolled into one cohesive sound. Do not miss this incredibly original slice of Americana set to music…for it is an awe inspiring listen.

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Track Listing:

01 In the Name of River Grand
02 Hijo de Desierto
03 Buried Arrows
04 The Book of Truth
05 Tchulu Junction
06 Mean Season Movin’ On
07 Shunka Sapa

Band Members:
Tanner Olson – Vocals/Guitars
Matt Shively – Bass/Guitars/Backing Vocals
Nathan Rose - Drums (Note: Dan Catron is the current drummer, having replaced Rose after the album's release)

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