Across Tundras
Western Sky Ride

Across Tundras‘ name is a bit misleading – you might expect this to be another band of corpsepainted warriors, howling about the frozen north and the cold, cold, cold. It’s mournful and somber alright, but their inspiration is rooted much further south, in the American Southwest.

Hailing from Denver, Colorado, Across Tundras plays a psychedelic brand of progressive doom that taps into the desert mystique (and I’m writing this from Phoenix, so I know a bit about how alien this landscape can be). Outside of Kyuss, I don’t know of many metal bands who’ve focused on the desert or the kind of Western Gothic vibe usually found in Johnny Cash-worshipping alt-country bands, so it’s a welcome change from the usual grind.

Unlike most doom, which usually goes for crushing menace, dark fantasy, or you know, good ol’ eeeevil, this is an earthier, dying-summer vibe. Drums and feedbeack-seared, low-end guitar churn like rolling thunder on the horizon. Perfect for taking in a mid-July lightning storm (which, if you haven’t seen them, is one reason to brave the 115+ degree heat in this part of the world – spectacular stuff). Occasionally, a twangy guitar line joins in, lending more of an overt country feel, but it never feels too familiar or hackneyed, and only adds to the appeal. Western Sky Ride, the band’s second full release, boasts an hour’s worth of long, shambling compositions, which are well-structured and easy to get lost in. Aggression is minimal – Across Tundras never picks up to a full gallop – but they deliver on the drama when they need to.

Again, this is largely due to the subject matter and the easy associations it conjures. Ominous cowboy-requiems like “Badlands Blues” or “Low the Daystar Hangs” are standout tracks, evoking low, foreboding skies, looming duststorms and miles of bad terrain. It’s as if 16 Horsepower survived the Civil War and moved west, expecting to find better fortune and perhaps some salvation, but wound up with yet more misery instead.

Now the bad stuff: I’m sorry to say that while I found a lot to like about the music, the vocals just killed this for me. I found the singing to be weak and warbling, almost purposely off-key, without any real presence or authority. It’s a wandering drone that’s perhaps intended to be sorrowful, distant or mysterious, but just comes off as annoying instead. Worse, the vocals are buried halfway in the mix (the recording already sounds as if it were miked from across the room), as if they were ashamed of themselves.

Occasionally they’re more tolerable, as on “Follow Me to San Luis,” a somber lament that lets the vocals ride along with the melody without being buried by the thunder. The track also features a soulful female vocal not too unlike Neko Case, which is a plus for me. At times, the vocals coarsen to a thicker bellow, as on the more crushing moments of “Song of the Sullen Plains,” but then they drop back down into that horse-kicked, brain-damaged cowboy yowl, which are some of the worst on the album.

It’s a shame, because the unique atmosphere, fresh take on the doom/psychedelic genre and competent, interesting songwriting really could’ve made Western Sky Ride a real winner. I’d love to find an album that perfectly fits the variety of moods and majesty we enjoy out here in the desert, but this one’s for the coyotes.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
June 5th, 2008

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