Across Tundras, The Rugged Ranges of Curbs and Broken Minds: In the Ashes of Idealism

across tundras the rugged ranges of curbs and broken minds

It has been six years since Across Tundras released their last full-length. That record, Electric Relics (review here), was a triumph of the band’s songwriting approach, blending elements from heavy rock and psychedelia with Americana and folk roots in a way that, even though they’d been at it for nearly a decade by then, still remained forward-thinking. It was also their first album to be released through their own imprint, Electric Relics Records, following 2011’s Sage (review here) coming out via Neurot and others released either by themselves and other labels. One could hardly say The Rugged Ranges of Curbs and Broken Minds follows a period of inactivity, given the fact that in the interim, the band has issued 2015’s Home Free EP (discussed here), a 2017 two-songer single, Blood for the Sun / Hearts for the Rain (discussed here), as well as various archival offerings, and founding guitarist/vocalist T.G. Olson has issued numerous solo full-lengths, singles and other releases, under his own name and several other incarnations, experimenting in folk, drone, assembled noise and so on, all being issued, like The Rugged Ranges of Curbs and Broken Minds, through Bandcamp with little to no prior announcement and as a name-your-price download and limited, usually hand-crafted, physical pressing.

That kind of promotional minimalism hasn’t done much for Across Tundras in terms of fanfare, but is has let Olson control and build his discography on his own terms, which is very much how the band operates throughout the new album, which, though again, they haven’t exactly been gone, has been nonetheless long awaited. To wit, before this stretch, the longest they’d gone between full-lengths was two years. And the crafting of these tracks would not seem to have been uncomplicated, recorded during moves between Nebraska and Nashville, Tennessee, with the final lineup of Olson, Ben Schriever, Caleb R.K. Williams, Abigail Lily O’Hara and Noel Dorado, but the fluidity that results serves as a reminder of what has always been a signature strength for Across Tundras in terms of creating space with their sound.

From their 2005 debut, Dark Songs of the Prairie onward, their mission has been in part to capture the spirit of a heavy Americana, and that remains true on The Rugged Ranges of Curbs and Broken Minds, but like the land itself, the shape that has taken in their sound has changed, and some of the ramble that found its way into Across Tundras‘ rolling grooves in years past has turned sullen, gazing less at shoes than out at an expanse of empty land, but gazing all the same. In darker moments like “Talkin’ Rust Cohle Existential Blues” or the wistful leadoff title-track, there’s a clear line to be drawn to some of Olson‘s recent solo work, which has blurred the lines between full-band-style soundcraft and guy-and-guitar folk, but one of The Rugged Ranges of Curbs and Broken Minds‘ most engaging aspects is the wash it creates and the deceptive depth of its mix, with pedal steel and drones resting far back behind the strumming electric guitar and voice, the drums subtle sometimes and more forward others, as when they lead the march of uptempo second cut “Slow Down and Breathe,” which boasts arguably the most memorable hook on the record, or in the later “Whirlwind Reapin’,” the midsection of which rises from a soundscape of distortion and heartsick melody to move into a wash of tone before closing with residual noise.

across tundras rock pile

Though it does not struggle to make an immediate impression, the album is best on repeat listens — a slow burner that lets the voice speaking at the beginning of the penultimate “When We Were All One” come through, and gives the soft-touch blues of centerpiece “Boots of Snake Leather” its proper room to breathe — and the more its genuine scope is revealed, the more those listens are earned. Whether it’s the tale-telling of “The Rugged Ranges of Curbs and Broken Minds” or the noisy, organ-laced finish of “New War on the Range,” which is also the longest track at 7:42, the band hold firm to an experimentalist purpose and care of arrangement that goes beyond the surface of Olson‘s songwriting, and the vision of the prairie they’re using as their backdrop is that much richer for it.

As a fan and someone who — if I didn’t get the point across — was waiting for a new Across Tundras LP to come out, The Rugged Ranges of Curbs and Broken Minds is all the more satisfying because it doesn’t ignore what Olson has done over the last six years. It ties to his solo work in a way that isn’t trying to be something that it’s not. It’s still rooted in that heavy Americana ideal, but more patient in its songwriting than the band have ever been, and more willing to, like the song says and eventually does, “Slow Down and Breathe” almost as an act of escapism from the modern chaos hinted at in the album’s title. In its blend of naturalist wash and country folk, it is both lush and organic, with Olson‘s mostly laid back, breathy post-Dylan vocal style providing the human core around which the other elements swirl and churn and do whatever else it is they might do.

All told, The Rugged Ranges of Curbs and Broken Minds is seven songs/43 minutes of material that pushes the band into places where they’ve never been, and while it does so, it seems to find itself closer to the heart of what they’ve been going for all along, that kind of resonance shared between emotionality and place. In the howling leads of “Talkin’ Rust Cohle Existential Blues” and the way “When We Were All One” seems to bask in imaginary sentiment — what could be more American? — Across Tundras are able to manifest their ideas in a way they’ve never been before, and they’re ultimately stronger for incorporating what Olson has learned in the intervening years of solo work in making that happen. Though the American underground is rife with heavy blues of various shapes and forms, Across Tundras are unto themselves, and whether one thinks of it as heavy bluesgaze folk or whatever else, The Rugged Ranges of Curbs and Broken Minds is a welcome reminder of that fact.

Across Tundras, The Rugged Ranges of Curbs and Broken Minds (2019)

Across Tundras on Thee Facebooks

Across Tundras/T.G. Olson on Bandcamp

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