Prolific and with a multi-faceted sonic approach steeped in wide-open Americana and new-school intellectualist metal crunch, Nashville, Tennessee, trio Across Tundras make their Neurot Recordings debut with Sage. It’s the band’s seventh full-length since they got together in 2004, and it has a naturalist, organic edge to it, with clear separation between the guitar, bass, vocals and drums, and a cohesive full-album flow that offsets its prairie licks with heavy rhythms and Sabbathian bass runs from “Big Jim” Shively. Shively’s tone and playing are consistent highlights throughout Sage, starting with Spaghetti Western opener “In the Name of River Grand,” which lays out much of the dustbowl romanticism Across Tundras have on offer with the record. Their songwriting varies from the straightforward to the avant, and their greatest achievement with Sage might be keeping themselves from losing the wagon-wheels when it comes to structuring the tracks. “Hijo de Desierto,” just more than half the length of the opener at 4:56, is built around a strong, memorable chorus and even as it decays into a darkly psychedelic fever dream, it keeps that chorus going as a way to ground the listener in the experience, showing both maturity and structural prowess on Across Tundras’ part.
Guitarist/vocalist Tanner Olson – Shively also contributes backing vocals, as does drummer Nathan Rose – ranges from shouts to the sub-country croon of “Buried Arrows,” on which fellow Nashville resident Lilly Hiatt (of Lilly Hiatt and the Dropped Ponies) guests in classic Grand Ol’ Opry duet fashion. “Buried Arrows” is probably the best vocal performance on Sage, despite the lyrics seeming somewhat contrived with generic images of hitching down hard roads, days of the buffalo, high desert land, etc., and Olson’s guitar displays a suitable twang to match, underscored by Rose’s subtle floor tom rhythm, evoking at once a Native American tradition and the weighted low end that typifies so much modern doom. Shively’s bass is once again gorgeously crisp, but it’s on the more open centerpiece cut “The Book of Truth” that he really shines, filling the empty spaces between guitar stops and laying the foundational groove on which the track is built. He’s not overly flashy in his playing, not showing off or anything like that, but if I was sitting with a friend talking about the new Across Tundras record – and of course I’d have to specify Sage, since it probably won’t be all that long before the next one is out – the first thing I’d say is that the bass makes the album. That’s not to take away from what either Olson or Rose contribute to the band, it’s a trio, so every member is essential to the whole, just that a killer bass tone isn’t something that comes easily or often, so the Geezer Butler runs at the end of “The Book of Truth” are worth appreciating double.
And not to harp on it, since it’s really Olson’s ringing guitar that’s the focal point of “Tchulu Junction,” but the bass tone permeates that track as well, playing off the guitar and drums in a way that, as someone who hasn’t really dug into an Across Tundras album since their 2006 Dark Songs of the Prairie debut, speaks of a togetherness as a unit obviously born of the band’s experience both in the studio and touring. “Tchulu Junction” has a bit more plod to it, more of a sludge feel, with heavy hits from Rose and wandering lead lines from Olson that seem to be exploring the sonic expanse for the first time despite the clearly charted course they follow, and by that I mean “Tchulu Junction” is more spontaneous feeling than some of the other material on Sage, a turn from some of the other material on the album and effective setup for the 12-minute slow-mover “Mean Season Movin’ On,” on which Across Tundras’ bent toward Neil–Young-via-Earth seems to come full circle, beginning slow but gradually adopting a middling pace behind Olson’s once again airy riffing. The song plays out a verse/chorus build over the next several minutes and movements, returning after a lengthy and effective solo section to a satisfying reinterpretation of the intro that also serves as the lumbering climax of Sage, giving way to the end of the song only after making sure the point is well made. It is.
Closer “Shunka Sapa” is a somewhat curious finale for Across Tundras’ latest. A percussion-driven nine-minute instrumental, it doesn’t do much to capitalize on the payoff of “Mean Season Movin’ On,” instead giving Sage a more inward-looking feel for its end. I wouldn’t call it a mistake on the part of the band, just an unexpected turn it might take listeners a few runs through to adjust to. Fortunately, as a whole, Sage is well worth those repeat visits, and the album seems to open more with each listen, gradually revealing its full breadth over time. It’s heady in the sense of Olson, Rose and Shively having a self-awareness of the genres they’re toying with, but there’s a lot about Sage that those who take it on will find themselves wanting to get lost in, be it the sun-baked ambience or the passages of heavier mood.
Across Tundras, “Tchulu Junction”