The week I started high school, I stood in line with my dad at our mall's soon-to-disappear Camelot Music store. "What am I buying?" was Dad's only question when I handed him a copy of Limp Bizkit's Significant Other with its glaring Parental Advisory sticker. My satisfactory answer — "just some bad language" — couldn't have been closer to the truth. I quickly gleaned that frat-bro frontman/MC Fred Durst, who wanted me to hand him something to break because he's had a bad day, was full of shit. If his seething, impotent rage was the best that metal had to offer — which I judged it must be, since I'd seen the band on still-mighty tastemaker MTV — I wanted no part of it.
For the next decade, I stubbornly ignored all music that dared call itself "heavy" or "metal," including stuff that was expressive, innovative or just plain fun, from Black Sabbath to Iron Maiden, The Melvins and even Queens of the Stone Age. What finally cracked my ears open were groups like Across Tundras, who proudly blur the genre divisions that are so often grounds for argument — and, let's face it, premature judgment.
For 10 years — the past five spent in Nashville — evolving incarnations of Across Tundras have made dense, earth-shaking rock 'n' roll, packed with sludgy stoner drones and meaty riffs, coupled to the rich, darkly literate perspective of leader Tanner Olson.
"For a lot of people, lyrics are throwaway placeholders, [but] I wanted to put a lot of effort into the lyrical content and draw from not only the best songwriters, but my favorite authors, and history, too," says Olson, cross-legged on his living-room floor. "What's happened in history is happening today, with a little different look to it."
I'm at a rehearsal where the group's current incarnation — Olson plus bassist Mikey Allred and drummer Casey Perry — work with Zen-like concentration on a fluid 13-minute piece about an extinction-level natural disaster, slotted to be the core of their next LP. The drums roll and swell, the bass gives me a full-body massage, and searing guitar riffs orbit the central tone that roots the song to the earth. At the same time, the lyrics tie into the reality of climate change and recall the ruin of civilizations past. It's a perfect fit for their catalog, which owes as much to Cormac McCarthy and Native-American legends as to Woody Guthrie and Earth.
All three players work in areas of the music industry that dance between creativity and business: Olson, who has run DIY labels most of his adult life, works with Perry in quality control at United Record Pressing, and Allred is an ace engineer whose non-AT credits include local rock MVPs Glossary and nationally acclaimed stoner-doom group Inter Arma. They have the experience and quality product to make the band bigger, and they're not opposed to exposure, with a substantial fall tour with breaking heavy blues group All Them Witches on the docket. But for now, they're taking everything as it comes, focusing on quality over quantity.
"The external pressure of what you're supposed to do as a band, whether it's from your label or your booking agent telling you, 'You released an album, and you have to tour this much,' that really ruins it for a lot of people," explains Olson. "But is it really what's best for you and your band, to keep doing that again and again?"
" 'Making it' in our eyes is having people care," Perry affirms. "It drives us to make a testament that stands in the whole ocean of chaos, flooded markets and moving units. We just make something with our own hands. We all firmly believe it'll stand the test of time, and that's worth more than a dollar in the bucket any day."
If it could make a fan out of me, I'm willing to bet they're on the right track.