It’s been nearly a decade since Across Tundras first tore this writer’s face off at the one-and-only Drinking and Flying Festival in Wichita, Kansas. The trio just happened to be traveling through town and just happened to connect with some of the right dudes who just happened to get them—last minute—on the bill. It was not entirely unlikely anything I’d heard before—the trio was, for lack of a better term, heavy. But lots of bands are heavy.
There was something different about Across Tundras—and not just that the lineup was different back then. These guys unleashed some of the most unpretentious music being made at that or any other time. But it was not completely benevolent. Between the notes and yowls and dragging beats, there was something lurking, something that may or may not have crawled up from under the prairie grass during a dark and cold and seemingly endless big sky night on the Great Plains. The sound was dirty, like a dark and secret potato cellar hidden somewhere deep in the bowels of your weird neighbor’s house. This was the mysterious dirt under your father’s fingernails. Did it get there from burying a man he killed in an alleyway, or from working long hours at the factory? You could smell the dirt and the honesty and the heaviness in each behemoth chord and behind the glacial beat, and maybe, if you got close enough, in each band member’s beard.
All of this is as true now as it was back then. Only now Across Tundras has gotten better. Vocalist/guitarist Tanner Olson continues his tendency for sparse but spectacular vocals, finding a voice that is as at once as ancient as the Earth itself and yet seemingly from some corner of some as yet unknown future. His is a voice firmly rooted in the American soil and yet unbound by any gravitational force; a voice that was made for rock ‘n’ roll and yet seems to possess qualities that must have been common among the Ancients. Witness “Buried Arrows”. Who knows what, exactly, it’s about, but it convinces you that Olson and his singing partner Lilly Hiatt (daughter of legendary singer-songwriter John Hiatt) have, like the caretakers past and present of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, always been here.
What’s more impressive is the way the trio incorporates the buzz and burn of the original ‘Eavy Ones (Blue Cheer, The Who at Leeds) with charming but dark twists and turns that call to mind English folk masters Pentangle and Fairport Convention on “The Book of Truth”, or the way Across Tundras doesn’t give an inch to fear on the heaviest of the heavy here, namely “In the Name of River Grand” and “Tchulu Junction”.
See, these guys know that there’s already one Neurosis, they know that there are hundreds of cats out there who want to lay claim to being the Melvins, who want to cash in on some other act’s hard-won glory. But Across Tundras doesn’t play that game, opting instead to incorporate elements of those familiar sounds, but forge something that is both timeless and particular to this age. You can watch Across Tundras grow with each passing release and never grow tired because you’re witnessing a—sometimes fast, sometimes slow—progression that is the obvious but unstated mission of the band.
The three epics that close out the album—the aforementioned “Tchulu Junction” (on which Olson delivers some guitar lines that will very likely inspire one or two kids out there to practice just a little harder), the 12-minute “Mean Season Movin’ On” (a title that Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark Farner could surely love, with a musical ungodliness that will make Buzz Osborne smile), and the space jam “Shunka Sapa”—alone are worth the price of admission, serving as evidence of this outfit’s true, far-reaching imagination and total prowess. And, before closing, it should be mentioned that the rhythm section of Matt Shively (bass) and Nathan Rose (drums) is as loping, loose, and as hypnotic as a Mescaline pie.
This band and this album will help define the coming musical decade and, when the smoke has cleared, will emerge as true survivors, cosmic warriors, innovators in the cause of heaviness.