The TANK may be empty but it’s full of good vibrations

By John Rasmuson

An hour’s drive southwest of Vernal, Utah, brings you to Rangely, Colo., where the chamber of commerce’s welcome sign boasts of a town “way outside of ordinary.”

And so it is. Rangely has no traffic lights. No Walmart. No McDonald’s. It has tumbleweeds on Main Street along with lots of pickup trucks plastered with dried mud. Although the town of 2,400 residents is home to two museums and a college campus, the ambiance is industrial. Rangely has been an oil town since it was incorporated in 1946. Most of its buildings are utilitarian with ribbed metal roofs. Most are single-story, built low to the ground. In fact, the tallest structure in town is a six-story water tank with the Rio Grande Railroad logo painted on the side. The steel tank is outside of ordinary in more ways than one.

Built by the railroad in the 1940s, the silver tank was brought to Rangely in the mid-1960s to anchor a power plant’s fire-suppression system. It was sited on a knoll whose shape, color and texture are elephantine. But the underlying shale could not support the big structure. It was too heavy. Even before water was pumped into the tank, the cylindrical wall sank, bowing the half-inch steel floor upward. Unusable, the tank stood idle and rusting for years. Its only visitors brought cans of spray paint or six-packs of beer.

Then, in 1976, while on a Chautauqua tour overnighting in Rangely, sound artist Bruce Odland was introduced to the tank by two oil-field workers. Its “dizzyingly beautiful reverberation effects” so impressed him that he returned time and again in the ensuing years. The tank’s interior became a secret performance venue for him and a coterie of musicians. Odland’s Leaving Eden CD was recorded there.

Plans to dismantle and scrap the tank in 2013 caused Odland to try to save it. He organized Friends of the TANK, which included local governments and businesses. Its two Kickstarter campaigns raised enough money to buy the structure and 9 acres around it. Donations also paid for electricity, bathrooms, ventilation and other amenities. The small porthole that had limited the instruments that could be brought inside was replaced by a cut-out door large enough to admit a sousaphone.

The TANK Center for Sonic Arts opened for business four years ago. Wrote music critic Alex Ross in The New Yorker, “One road to the musical future now runs through Rangely.” The road is already well traveled. Among the tank performers are the Colorado Children’s Chorus, jazz trumpeter Ron Miles, and the Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble, Roomful of Teeth. And more to come. A headline in the Los Angeles Times announced, “Forget Carnegie Hall. Musicians rush to rural Colorado to play The TANK.” The annual solstice celebration brings out-of-state visitors to mingle with townies in welcoming the onset of summer.

Musicians from near and far flock to make music in the TANK

Surround Sound

I arrived at the tank on an April morning. I had arranged for a tank engineer to meet me at the foot of the gated driveway, let me in and show me around. I was studying the deer and raccoon tracks in the mud when she drove up. A 20-something woman with long black hair and prominent blue eyes got out of the car and introduced herself. Samantha LightShade then led the way up the steep, gravel driveway to the tank. As she unlocked the steel door, she asked me to take off my shoes. The interior was dark except for a string of white Christmas lights tracing the circumference at floor level. I walked across the convex floor—a parabola, she said—to the east quadrant of the tank. The steel was beginning to radiate the heat of the morning sun. She stood in the middle. There, like the owner of a gull-wing Tesla X showing off its marvels, she explained the tank’s acoustics and its renowned, 40-second reverb.

Could she demonstrate? I asked. She allowed that she was a “tank-trained vocalist” who had been singing there since childhood and was willing to lend her voice to a demonstration. Thereupon, she tilted her face toward a midpoint in the tank wall and began to sing. As she did, ethereal notes eddied around us. I watched her mouth moving, but as if she were a ventriloquist projecting her voice, the disembodied sounds cascaded down from above. It gave new meaning to “surround sound.”

She then invited me to sing “Amazing Grace” with her. I quickly agreed. My tank debut began tentatively, following her lead. She slowed the tempo to prevent the words from being lost in a reverberating loop. My baritone served as a counterbalance to LightShade’s soaring soprano, and I experimented with the effects of aiming my voice at different places in the tank where it was amplified and redirected. As the final notes of the duet faded into the darkness, I was smiling involuntarily. I felt like hugging her.

Make Your Own Music

If you want to sing in the tank, or play your sousaphone, it is open to the public every Saturday morning. No reservation is needed, and there is no cost. If you want a private recording session for your band or Osmond-like family, you can book the tank by the hour on its website. For less than $100, tank engineers will record your session in two-track stereo and provide a recording on a USB drive. If you want a “professional session” with multi-track recording, LightShade will make the arrangements.

For practical reasons, the tank season runs from May to October. The unheated interior is too cold most days between October and June. On the other hand, afternoon temperatures on summer days may be oppressive.

But, regardless of the season, any road trip to Vernal’s Dinosaur National Monument or McConkie Ranch petroglyphs should include some tank time. There are plenty of ordinary towns in the West, but The TANK Center for Sonic Arts confers out-of-the-ordinary status to Rangeley all by itself.

The TANK Center for Sonic Arts
233 Colorado Road 46, Rangely, Colo.