Some bands take years of false starts, stylistic affectations, and happy accidents before finding a sound that, once stumbled across, seems to have been what they were circling around all along. Across Tundras is not one of those bands, having sprung into life more or less fully-formed in sound and aesthetic, the Athena to Denver, Colorado’s Zeus. Given that Sage largely plows the same furrowed terrain as previous albums, it seems apparent that the move to Neurot Records is more confirmation of aesthetic kinship than reflection of a real change of mission. Across Tundras’ sprawling, psychedelic Western rock is a natural complement for Steve Von Till, Red Sparowes, U.S. Christmas, Harvestman, and so forth. While Sage is no massive leap forward for Across Tundras, it is an excellent consolidation of strengths that finds the band’s Americana doom vibe in full flower.
To the (questionable) extent that this is even categorizable as capital-m Metal, Sage is built not on riffs but licks, with a graceful, gracious full-band approach rounded out by slow, loping grooves of shimmering guitar and warm, active bass. The drums quiver with that red-blooded tone of a warm room just about to burst its acoustics, and Tanner Olson’s vocals are a strained holler that reminds me of a less whiskey-graveled version of Spencer Moody from the Murder City Devils. Where the vocal delivery occasionally leaves something to be desired in terms of variation, the pitch-perfect use of evocative lyrics helps to fill out the sepia-hued imagery already sketched out so expertly by the music itself. Make no mistake, this music is perfect for those of you stuck on Earth’s Hex, Tomahawk’s Anonymous, and The Gault’s Even As All Before Us; perfect for kicking the dust off your boots and softly cursing the cracked, desert Earth and singing along to the worn-out refrain of “Hijo de Desierto”: “Tonight I dream of water, cool, clear water.”
One of the strongest features of Across Tundras’ sound is the effective use of melancholic melodies that never drag the music down to a shoe-gazing weepfest. See the opening minutes of “In the Name of River Grand,” a tune that works as a nice encapsulation of Across Tundras’ overall sound, with the guitar lament eventually giving way to driving, martial drum fills and horns that bleed into a Western punk conclusion. “Buried Arrows” is a psychedelic acoustic tune featuring some very Dolly Parton- or June Carter-esque female vocals that carry a rollicking, dark country shuffle. The main riffing of “Mean Season Movin’ On” is built around classically shifting blues scale arpeggios, while “Tchulu Junction” is the gloomiest song here, with a slow stomp opening backed by ominous keys, eventually finishing with a slow-burning psych freak-out. The cacti sway, perhaps not entirely of their own accord; the soil glows red from above, red from below. Album closer “Shunka Sapa” is a funky instrumental that sees some of the album’s busiest bass playing, while the tom-heavy drums shimmy along, backed by the occasional percussive flourish of an anvil being struck.
The music of Across Tundras has always spoken in equal measures of the desperate, yearning hope and world-weary resignation that have so long been our culture’s encoding of “the West.” Thankfully, Sage also functions as an engrossing journey of sludge-infused Western rock, perfect for either a spot of deep contemplation over the myths that build nations, or a nail-biting game of Oregon Trail. Who among you will manifest destiny? And who among you will contract dysentery?