The other night we were standing outside a local rock show — as one does — talking with a local promoter about the state of things, when the conversation veered to metal ... as it does. It was agreed that there had been an uptick in national and international acts coming to town and that there are countless good local bands, but we also agreed that beyond the metal-bubble we live in, there hasn't been sizable enough audience to match the level of talent. We bandied about a number of theories: There's no all-ages scene to feed into the "of age" scene; much of the audience for national shows goes back to the suburbs when the shows are over; everybody is too busy waxing their mustaches and polishing their fedoras. But we think we might have come around to the answer: This scene is just too damn progressive, and most folks can't keep up.
Case in point: Across Tundras and Hellbender, who are celebrating a dual vinyl release Thursday, June 6, at The Groove before they embark on a national tour together. Ostensibly, they are two of the city's most recognized names in heavy music — if only because we at the Scene talk about them incessantly — but you wouldn't be out of line for dropping the digital needle anywhere on Across Tundras' Electric Relics or Hellbender's Second Sight and saying, "If this is heavy music, where's the chugga-chugga?" Neither band has ever been predictable, but on these records they break so hard from the norms of heavy music that for the unprepared and uninitiated it can be disorienting. Nashville is a city that likes to stick hard to its genre tropes — whether twang or chug — but neither Across Tundras nor Hellbender is playing by those rules.
On Electric Relics, guitarist-vocalist-dronist Tanner Olson actually crafts a sound that the Dust Bowl Johnnies and Depression Era Betties can actually wrap their heads around. There's slide guitar, organ, an obvious indebtedness to classic murder ballads and Neil Young, and even a song about "pining for the gravel roads of my childhood home." But there's also a menace and darkness on Relics that is essentially American and yet has been cropped out of the Americana movement's rose-colored revisionism — let's call it A-metal-cana. With its compact songs and broadened arrangements, the album is the most accessible work to date from AT, synthesizing the expansive, dusty vistas of 2011's Sage with the droning experimentalism of Olson's solo work — showcased notably on his recent The Complete Blood Meridian for Electric Drone Guitar. Relics tracks like "Seasick Serenade" and "Den of Poison Snakes" create a fascinating, enveloping bridge between America's less cheery folk traditions and the brooding heaviness of metal to resounding effect.
On Second Sight, Hellbender delves into entirely different traditions when stepping outside of the metal realm — specifically, the Eastern and psychedelic traditions. (And if you don't think psych music counts as a tradition, remember that we're pretty close to the 50th anniversary of its birth — arguably when The Holy Modal Rounders recorded their version of Leadbelly's "Hesitation Blues" in 1964, dropping the word "psychedelic" in their tacked-on final verse.) Dispensing with the tedium of lyrics for the exploration of outer space via amplification and effects pedals, Hellbender hijacks Hawkwind's silver machine and sets the controls for the heart of the sun. The earth-rumbling heaviness of previous efforts is still at the band's core, but Second Sight finds the band painting with a broader melodic palette, tempering their brutality with dynamic soundscapes and adventurous arranging. Yet for all its connections to the psych legacy, Second Sight still feels like it has escaped from the future to save us from the boredom of predictable music. Let's hope their mission is successful.