SUNS OF THE TUNDRA – The Only Equation

Back in 2005, prog metal band Suns of The Tundra came to the attention of several die-hard Marillion fans when they supported Kino – a short lived musical project shared between Pete Trewavas and future Lonely Robot man John Mitchell – on their one and only tour. They immediately struck a chord with any Tool fans in the audience, but then seemed to disappear. Taking a decade long break between their second and third albums really didn’t help their career momentum, but from 2015, the band have worked steadily, creating interesting and rhythmic noises that add something of great interest to the UK scene.

The band’s fifth album, ‘The Only Equation’ continues in the rich musical vein explored on 2019’s ‘Murmuration’, offering a riff-based landscape where the guts of early Tool meet with the smarter parts of Godsticks, before adding a layer of vocals that often bring an essential sense of melody to the mechanical heft. As such, those in the know will find an instant love, but those often on the fence when it comes to prog metal will have to work a little harder to reap their musical reward.

As if often the case with so much prog metal, the obtuse sounds and heavy riffs take precedence over any obvious songs here – at least it feels as if that’s the case until you’ve spent quality time with such an intense work – but there’s no doubt that these guys can really work a complex sound. At their best, Tundra sound absolutely superb on ‘Anorak’, a number where slow, disjointed riffs power a moody verse, before everything explodes into a dense musical world where the essence of melodic prog metal intrudes on a crushing sound that seems to have derived from Rush’s opinion splitting ‘Vapor Trails’. The push and pull between the two moods drives a particularly crunchy five minutes, and the intense volume at which everything seems to be played doesn’t make for the most casual of listens, but those able to lose themselves within the layered arrangement will discover some great drone sounds, despite it being unclear whether these come from keys or heavily treated guitars. It’s also really pleasing, not to mention a little unexpected, to encounter a vocal melody that occasionally sounds as if it’s been influenced by Billy Sherwood and World Trade. Just as heavy, ‘Run Boy Run’ delivers a post-metal behemoth with a superb sound, and an unexpected twist. The opening of the number doesn’t skimp on a great metal-based riff; Simon Oakes works a dense guitar against a really crashy drum part, whilst the dirty riffs are intercut with angry, piercing lead notes. Just as you’ve got the measure of that, the riffs fall away to unveil a slow, moody passage where thudding bass contrasts a sad vocal. The use of echo to set up a call and response style hook is simple but effective; the tone of the bass really lends the haunting melody a huge heart. On first listen, it feels a little drawn out at over seven minutes, but subsequent spins reveal something interesting each time, and the contrast between the crunchy and the forlorn captures the essence of the band really effectively.

Going for something even more epic, stand out track ‘The Rot’ opens with a mix of clean guitar sounds and fuzzy electric howls, sounding like an extended Tool intro reworked by Jerry Cantrell. Immediately, this serves up a welcome dose of the Suns’ cinematic side, and when a barrage of toms is introduced to beef up a rising groove, there’s a feeling that the track will be special. Indeed, as the melodies go about their business and a classic proggy vocal injects a very accessible counter melody complete with understated harmonies, the track becomes classic Tundra fare – a blend of prog and stoner infused desert rock that tips a hat to the scene’s forefathers, but has a rich sound that is just as relevant in the present. During the first half of the track, it’s often drummer Andrew Prestidge who’s in the driving seat, but there’s plenty regarding Oakes’s clear and confident vocal performance that really helps this number to stand out, at least until everything takes a massive shift into heavier climes. At that point, some really obvious Tool-isms act as an instigator for the band to embark on a brilliant, lurching juggernaut of heavy grooves. The dirty rhythm guitar present during the heavy workout sounds great whilst working a semi Eastern flavour, and the lead guitar brings an essential contrast with some deftly played bluesy howls. Eventually descending into an even darker place where bass riffs are used as chugging lead and a haunting vocal applies an unexpected tone inspired by a more melodic prog sound, the track takes a further leap into a dark world that this band have truly made their own.

For those hoping for something even proggier, ‘Reach For The Inbetween’ pulls together most of the Tundra influences to create a fifteen minute workout that has a little something for all prog fans. Firstly, a slow, atmospheric build up offers something Floydian when lead guitars soar against an ambient drone. The arrival of the main riff actually takes the band into a landscape where world music tones bleed into a post-grunge groove, ending somewhere that might remind some listeners of late period Porcupine Tree and Godsticks. A great riff deserves a great vocal, and Simon latches onto a particularly direct melody here, pushing his voice against a retro sounding guitar riff that dances gleefully above some fat bass grooves. A little further on, the bass takes more of a leading role, and if it weren’t clear before, Andy Marlow is a great player. He continues to weild some serious muscle when he leads the band through the heaviest part of the suite where stoner rock riffs colour a melody that’s closer to melodic post-metal than most prog. Throughout the album, the individual musical ingredients are interesting, but this allows the band to pull together on something more melodic, which becomes more obvious when a descending vocal melody, again, sounds like a heavy cousin to one of World Trade’s much-loved tunes. In closing, the band then go “full on Tool” with a very mechanical riff where high toned bass and muted guitars collide. The influence may be an obvious one, but the band makes it their own by injecting a few heavy stoner riffs along the way, and Simon’s clear, prog-friendly vocal continues to be far preferable to Maynard Keenan’s pointless, insular mumbling.

It isn’t all great, unfortunately, and ‘Snakes & Ladders’ ventures a little too far into self indulgence. Following a slow drone/post-rock fade in, the track quickly takes a hold with a heavily rhythmic groove, where drums dominate whilst a fuzzy sounding guitar pierces the groove. The busy arrangement is just too busy; it’s one of those tracks where everyone sounds too absorbed in their own world, and everyone’s forgotten how important an actual melody is. Still, those who like Godsticks at their heaviest might still glean some enjoyment from the near-chaos, but it’s hard to believe it’ll ever be anyone’s favourite Tundra tune. The title track fares a little better purely through latching onto some particularly heavy, mid tempo post-metal, and as before, the musical union between the fuzzy guitars and Simon’s vocal is a strong one, but it comes with a feeling that similar sounds work far better on parts of ‘Reach For The Inbetween’. Thankfully, any musical wobbles are made up for when ‘The Window Is Wide’ fills an absolutely beautiful six minutes with atmospheric, harmonic bass sounds, cinematic piano and soaring strings. It’s like hearing bits of post-’Kid A’ Radiohead through a prism where My Dying Bride’s quieter moments intrude. By using a whole world of vocal harmonies, guitar harmonics and mournful melodies, the first two minutes of this final track are just lovely. The rest of the track does not disappoint, either: even when the guitars beef up the sound and a slightly off-kilter rhythm brings something more “traditionally Tundra”, the melodic heart continues to beat strongly. Factor in a keyboard solo pulled straight from a mid 70s Camel LP and a vocal harmony that suggests at least one member of the band is a fan of 90s era Yes, and you have the best recording in the Suns of The Tundra catalogue to date.

Despite Suns of The Tundra building a fanbase since their 2015 return, they still feel like a band who are undervalued; a band existing on the peripheries of the prog scene, whilst the big names take most of the glory. In a just world, they’d get more attention, and despite having no desire to be overly commercial or even explore as much as an obvious chorus hook, ‘The Only Equation’ is the kind of album that deserves to take them to a bigger crowd. It won’t be a record for everyone, but those who love the stoner and desert rock inspired end of the prog metal spectrum will certainly find plenty to get their ears around. Even with a couple of numbers that don’t quite work, this is an album that’s highly recommended.

June 2023