[25 July 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Metal has always gotten a lot of mileage from bands paying tribute to their heritage. From the Viking themes explored by Bathory, Enslaved, and Amon Amarth, to the Irish metal of Primordial, to the Gaulish themes of Eluveitie, to the native Brazilian sounds on Sepultura’s records, to the heavy Slavic influence heard in Arkona’s music, traditional stories and music from one’s own country lends itself extremely well with more extreme styles of music. Here in North America, though, while Viking and pagan metal continues to draw well, there aren’t many bands that choose to explore their own heritage, with bands preferring to delve into their European roots rather than their own continent. Nashville-based Across Tundras is one exception, however.
Helmed by singer/guitarist Tanner Olson, the criminally underrated band combines heavy music with decidedly American themes. From day one, their music has felt directly influenced by the terrain, the traditions, and the folklore of America, namely the vast Great Plains: huge riffs as expansive as a prairie horizon, a slight twang giving the music a dustbowl feel, lyrics that evoke Woody Guthrie, and essentially an overall sense of being absolutely dwarfed by your surroundings. It’s an idea that’s worked brilliantly for the band, first on 2006’s aptly titled debut Dark Songs of the Prairie, 2008’s Western Sky Ride, and on the brilliant, brooding follow-up Lonesome Wails From the Weeping Willow, and their new album, the band’s fifth, continues their graceful evolution.
Unlike the low-key Lonesome Wails, which played up the old-timey folk element a lot more with its acoustic guitar-oriented sound, lo-fi production, and even a rendition of the traditional “Lowlands Low”, Old World Wanderer is far more direct in approach. Across Tundras is still a band that likes the slow burn, and three songs stretch past the eight minute mark, but this time around, the production is a lot cleaner, placing more focus on Olson’s singing than ever before, and most strikingly, the band’s electric sound is back with a vengeance.
Starting with the elegiac “Vanguard Battle Hymn”, the raga-like basslines of Om, the crashing percussion of Neurosis, and the rustic distortion of Earth all converge beautifully on this record, and it never lets up. The ragged lead guitar tones of Crazy Horse’s “Cortez the Killer” highlight the dusky “Fallin’ to the Nethers”, as does Scottie Gilbert’s electric sitar solo near the end. “Weary Travelers Rest” works itself into a vicious, crawling groove, while the country-tinged “Stone Crazy Horse” is given a haunting mood thanks to Shannon Murphy’s distant backing vocals as Olson paints a vivid portrait of South Dakota’s Black Hills. Meanwhile, tablas and Gilbert’s electric sitar add a trance-like vibe to the hypnotic “Rainmaker – Floodreaper”.
Of all the songs, “Life on the Grain Belt” best epitomizes exactly what Across Tundras is all about. “Gravel road kicking dust up into a wake, to the fading city lights that give you no break/In my mirrors sinking, downgrade put it out of sight/To the fading city lights that give you no break”, Olson howls as he and the rest of the band churn away, the arrangement sounding like a blend of Zuma and Through Silver in Blood, the song ebbing and flowing between subdued passages and crashing climaxes with disarming grace. It’s so convincing, you’ll be thinking you have to rub the dust out of your eyes. By getting in touch with their own American heritage, Across Tundras have carved themselves a nice little niche, and have subsequently become one of the more unique sounding heavy bands in the country. It’s high time more people took notice, and Old World Wanderer is as perfect a place as any to start.