Across Tundras, Electric Relics: Driving Gravel Roads

Much of the tone for Electric Relics — which is upwards of Across Tundras‘ ninth full-length, the prolific trio now based in Nashville, Tennessee, and releasing music through their own Electric Relics imprint — is set by the six-minute opening track, “Pining for the Gravel Roads.” Amid one of the record’s catchiest musical progressions, guitarist/vocalist Tanner Olson repeats the resonant titular line, “Lately I’ve been pining for the gravel roads/Of my childhood home,” and thus provides a de facto summary not only of the perspective from which Electric Relics draws stylistic and thematic base, but also of the greater crux of Olson‘s work with Across Tundras. It’s as though he distilled the entire catalog of LPs, EPs, splits, solo-projects and the rest to a single lyric, and if it’s a bit of self-reflection from the band — the lineup of the trio completed by bassist/vocalist Mikey Allred (also synth, Mellotron, trombone) and drummer Casey Perry — it’s accompanied by a corresponding self-reliance. In addition to releasing the 180 gram gatefold vinyl themselves, Olson and Allred also helmed the recording, and Perry built and photographed the model for the album’s cover, and their know-how is no less prevalent in terms of their songwriting and aesthetic than it is in the practicalities of pressing and releasing. Nearly a decade on from getting together, Across Tundras have constructed a niche almost entirely their own of Americana-infused heavy psychedelic rock, richly ambient and reliant particularly in the case of Electric Relics on a pervasive sense of open space within the material. That’s true of the wistful, tonally-weighted sway enacted by “Pining for the Gravel Roads” and remains the uniting factor of the otherwise deeply varied work through to the Spaghetti Western gallop that closes the side B finale “Unfortunate Son.” Whatever they want to do with their sound, they’ve got the process down at this point and they know how to tie it together for a full-length flow. In just under 41 minutes, Electric Relics engages a flurry of ideals, both idolizing an unknowable past and seeking to create something whole and new from it.

Second track “Den of Poison Snakes” continues and refines some of the more memorable aspects of the opener, working at a slightly faster pace and keeping a straightforward structure centered around its chorus, “I guess that’s the chance you take/No one ever gets out alive/From the den of poison snakes/From the den of poison snakes,” while adding crunch in Olson‘s guitar not quite as hefty as “Crux to Bear” from their 2013 split with Lark‘s Tongue (streaming here) but certainly thick enough to give anything from 2011’s Sage (review here) a run for its money. Still, there’s a folksy feel to the proceedings, because although Perry‘s crashing, stomping drums are such a factor in highlighting the groove throughout Electric Relics, the echoing space with which they’re presented production-wise does nothing to take away from the reflective mood, and as the album plays out, Olson‘s vocals touch on Bob Dylan on “Castaway” and Allred adds organ to the winding acoustic/electric progression of “Driftless Caravan,” so there’s plenty of sonic diversity to at work anyhow. Two well-placed interludes — “Kiln of the First Flame” and “Seasick Serenade” — underscore just how much Across Tundras have going on at any given moment, the first of them following “Den of Poison Snakes” with a sub-drone instrumental built around sustained guitar strums and punctuating cymbal hits, gradually joined by the bass as a sense of movement emerges from the wash. I’m not sure if it ends side A or begins side B, but “Seasick Serenade” follows “Driftless Caravan” — which begins with what seems like a rush after the hypnotic earthy psychedelia of “Kiln of the First Flame” — but similar to the let’s-all-take-a-breath-before-we-keep-going effect that some of early Sabbath‘s acoustic interludes had, “Seasick Serenade” bases itself around a relatively simple 90-second aside the melody of which becomes deceptively familiar. Going from a linear (digital) format, it works equally well in following “Driftless Caravan” as it does introducing “Castaway,” the smoothness of transitions within the songs mirrored by that between them.

Ringing out its central rhythm on the ride cymbal before it even starts, “Castaway” works its way deftly from twanging lead verse lines into a crunching, heavier chorus with multiple layers of vocals adding to the sense of fullness. It moves up, then down, then up, then down, then around, and it’s almost a waltz by the time the verse is over, but the tradeoff of parts doesn’t stick around long enough to drag, and as Olson, Allred and Perry build off the chorus for a bridge near the halfway point, they make some sense in the blend of the two sides that results, the guitar sounding off in bell rings before the final instrumental push really begins. That payoff is somewhat restrained but still satisfying, the much dreamer “Solar Ark,” which follows building off the grounded elements for a more wandering sort of psychedelia. “Solar Ark” actually is a waltz, and it begins with subdued crooning and effected guitars punctuated by hard-hit drums before picking up to a more active instrumental chorus. Allred‘s bass is never quite at the center of the song, but it’s a major factor in its appeal, and as Olson follows the guitar line vocally, it’s the rhythm section behind giving the slow march its footsteps. The solo topping the chorus seems even more longing the second time around, and the overarching structural simplicity is underlined by the fact that after a few simple verses, the song breaks into its solo and returns to its quieter roots to end, a last-second reminder that’s just enough to give a hint of Across Tundras‘ respect for the traditionalism they’re speaking to. At 8:44, closer “Unfortunate Son” is the longest track on Electric Relics, building off guitar drones from Olson and initial cymbal washes from Perry as Allred rumbles beneath the swirl for an introduction that echoes and pushes further the psych elements of “Solar Ark” but gives a darker feel once the far-off-mic drums start after the first minute or so.

The song doesn’t so much start as it does solidify, stepping in after two minutes to a verse that rises from the disappearing murk but maintains the ethereal, somewhat grim moodiness for the next couple minutes as the progression is distorted and melded to suit the band’s purposes. Sage, which was about 13 minutes longer in total, had its meandering moments as well, but that’s not really what Across Tundras are doing as they round out Electric Relics. Six minutes on, they subtly change the rhythm to a section of “ooh”s that sets the tone for the grand finale of the song, a movement that begins its payoff after 7:30 and carries the album out with chugging Morricone-ism aided by Allred‘s trombone. This final confirmation — and, to a degree, expansion — of aesthetic provides fitting closure to Electric Relics, which has been touching on Western ambience all along without ever tipping quite so far in that direction as it does in its last throes, and as they ride the line out in what seems like a too-short last minute (you can only fit so much audio on an LP), I can’t help but wonder what freedom they’ll find in working with their own imprint. After a slew of albums on Saw Her GhostForgotten Empire and even Neurot — not to mention past self-releases — maybe they just got tired of bouncing around from outlet to outlet and wanted to end the debate once and for all. If their creative growth over the years is anything to go by, it’s probably not settled, but if Across Tundras‘ rambling days are over and they’re ready to settle into the canyon they’ve hollowed out for themselves, their sound shows no signs of growing stale, and their own terms seem to suit them.

Across Tundras, Electric Relics (2013)

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One Response to “Across Tundras, Electric Relics: Driving Gravel Roads”

  1. Skillit says:

    Rad review, thanks for posting, love Tanners songs.

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