Album Review: Ranges – The Ascensionist

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I’ve long admired Ranges, the concept post-rock quartet hailing from Bozeman, Montana. I enjoy the thought-provoking concepts that they use to inspire each of their releases (read my reviews of “Night and Day” and The Gods Of The Copybook Headings for some examples). The packaging behind each release is also brilliant [one of the perks of owning a printing press as a side business]. Their last output was a cassette tape that included a cryptic puzzle in the packaging, which revealed the information regarding this latest release – should the listener possess the time and energy to crack it.

Alas, I did not spend the time cracking said puzzle, as it arrived in the post just prior to my leaving home to travel around the United States. However, another writer more intelligent and articulate than I (Aaron Edwards from Arctic Drones) solved it and shared what he found: the track listing and title to the latest Ranges release, The Ascensionist.

In recent years, members of the band have been busy growing the ever-expanding screen printing/merch/distro/record label/business that is A Thousand Arms. They’ve also released the aforementioned tape, Prelude, and their first vinyl 7″ record, And The People Cried Out For A King. On top of this, A Thousand Arms has compiled and released a number of free post-rock compilations (including Open Language and Hemispheres). Despite all this work filling their schedule, Ranges still managed to find the time to record a new record in time for the inaugural dunk!USA festival in Burlington, Vermont.

Ranges the Ascensionist second pressing


This is music for adventures. Grandiose, epic soundtracks for brave feats. The album title – The Acensionist – and the band name – Ranges – both allude to the mountainous region of Montana where the band lives – references to the environment that inspires the respective members of the band.

Suitably enough, the first time I listened to the album was during an adventure. I had just rented a car in Phoenix, Arizona, and was making my way north to Montana to meet up with the band. New Zealanders drive on the left hand side of the road, but I thought I’d got the hang of American driving when living in Maine a few months earlier. Turns out driving in the low built-up wilderness of Maine doesn’t equate to the hectic five lane roads of Arizona’s biggest city. I freaked out.

I swear the album played at least four times on repeat as I drove from Phoenix to Sedona. I was too terrified to take my eyes off the road to change music, and there aren’t many suitable spots to pull over on the freeway. So The Ascensionist soundtracked my adventure, accompanying my journey through the vast deserts and arid cacti-flecked landscapes.

I revisited The Ascensionist  now and again during my week-long drive north. Passing immense gorges in Colorado, finding fossils and cave paintings in Utah, cruising along smoky mountaintops in Wyoming, and winding through geothermal hotspots in Yellowstone National Park. Epic music for epic times.

I held off reviewing the record though. I try to give music a thorough listening to when I review it, which can “kill” the appeal of the music if I overdo it. I listened to it during that trip, sure, but didn’t pick it apart and analyse it.

On tour, I heard the same set night after night for two weeks. I’m not sick of those songs, but I’m glad I didn’t listen to them too much before the tour either. It was nice going in fresh and picking up the nuances in a live context.

This review may as well be redundant. The album has been out for a few months now, so anyone who was inclined to listen to it would have already formed their own opinion by now. And Ranges don’t need my review for promo purposes – they sold out of records within a week – both US and EU editions. In fact, their second pressings came on sale on Black Friday. But I still admire the work, and I regard the members of Ranges as close friends, so I feel I owe them my thoughts on paper.


When it comes to Ranges, the music is only a component of the overall package. Concept and delivery are also paramount.

Most Ranges albums are concept albums – revolving around a theme that inspired the music. This time around, in a weird meta move, their concept is about themselves. Slightly pretentious, but at the same time neat to see the depth that they delve into with their art. Each track references a previous release. So if you look at track nine, and some of their merch, you may get insight into their next album theme…

And of course, the packaging is something else. Guitarist CJ Blessum and Ranges art director Wilson Raska co-own A Thousand Arms, a merchandising company. So their t-shirts, album covers etc… are all a step above.

The deluxe edition of the record came in 2LP 180g gatefold vinyl – different variants for the US and EU markets. The band made recycled paper with which to create custom booklets containing liner notes. They screen printed album covers and slipmats.

They also collaborated with local brewing companies to come up with special release Ranges coffee and beer. And bass player Jared Gabriel handmade clay mugs to go with the coffee.


 

I’ve written so much already without even touching on the music.

Blustery winds greet us on the opening track, setting the scene. I can picture a lone adventure scaling a peak, buffeted by the winds, slowly trudging through the snow. Soft guitar and mellow bass set the mood, before a swift transition into “Seven Sisters” provides us with harder hitting content that demonstrates how to make an opening statement.

When Ranges play this live, they combine the first two tracks and use a spoken word sample of Howard Simon’s poem I Choose The Mountain. I can’t hear the song without the sample, which is a shame. I think that the delivery sets the mood so well, and adds so much. By the same logic, I feel that excluding the sample from the recording detracts from the potential impact. Not that you’d know if you had only heard the album version… The embedded video above gives you an idea of how it sounds live [and I feature briefly at the 10 second mark].

This is not an upbeat record. But I still feel good when I listen to it. Take the title track, for example. “The Ascensionist” sound sombre and slow. It meanders along, slowly gaining layers and complexity. But when the guitar lead kicks in a few minutes into it, and the drums get busy, and the energy jacks up… well, it’s just grand. Sad, perhaps, but with an underlying glimmer of hope. Liken it to the emotions of conquering a mountain – grueling and hard, but thoroughly rewarding.

“Called Not to a New Religion, but to Life” took me by surprise. Programmed drums! Mark the drummer uses a Roland trigger pad to set off the electronic patterns, before adding his own acoustic beats after a few bars. CJ (guitar) is an absolute wizard, and programmed a lighting rig to sequence in time with a click track, so I wonder if the new electronica element arose from his experimenting with stage lighting? I can see it paving the way for more “glitchy” material in the future, like sleepmakeswaves or 65daysofstatic.

One of the standout tracks for me is “Babylon The Great (Part I)”. I remember they played it in Wichita, which completely took me by surprise. It was at a tiny wee bar named Kirby’s that Jared (bass) used to work at when he was at college. For some reason the guys decided to change the set that night, and played this song. It was the first time I’d heard it live. “Guys!” I said, “that track with the thrash beat… why have you been holding out on me all tour? That song kills! You need more of that higher energy stuff!” There’s something primal about the drumming on this song, with Mark just dominating.

But “Seven Veils” is the album highlight. The busy guitar line that opens is far more interesting than moody swells, and Mark’s beat features small flourishes on the hi-hats that add that extra oomph. But Joey’s guitar melody is the high point of the album – the hook that worms its way into your ear and has you subconsciously humming days later.


Listening to this album unearths fond memories. Memories of laughing along with the guys in the van, of late nights packing down equipment, of sharing pizza and budweisers, of driving through a beautiful mist-shrouded autumnal New York state, of making lifelong friends. To me, The Ascensionist sounds like adventures and friendship. And I think that is exactly what the band was trying for.

The Ascensionist is Ranges’ best album to date. It builds upon, and improves each of their prior works. I cannot remove my personal attachment to the music, but in a way that is an affirmation of quality. Great music evokes emotion.

I’m super excited for the next album. Ranges have done well thus far, but I see them on the cusp of a change. CJ has done well to carry the band this far, and has laid a great template. Now time for Joey to add more of melodies lines, and Mark to let his hardcore roots shine through on drums.

Ranges dunk!USA 2017


Ranges links:

VINYL & CD DISTRIBUTION
http://www.athousandarms.com/ranges (US)
https://shop.dunkfestival.com/ (EU)

FOLLOW RANGES
Website | www.rangesmusic.com
Spotify | https://open.spotify.com/artist/1iqjhf6W2YXUWwa2iKMybf
Apple Music | https://itun.es/us/-srd1
Bandcamp | https://ranges.bandcamp.com
Facebook | https://www.facebook.com/rangesmusic/
Instagram | https://www.instagram.com/rangesmusic/
Twitter | https://twitter.com/rangesmusic
Soundcloud | https://soundcloud.com/ranges
YouTube | https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBJg41ELchEChCEtIRKz4NA

Words and live photography by Joseph James

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