by Phil Freeman
Earthless—guitarist Isaiah Mitchell, bassist Mike Eginton, and drummer Mario Rubalcaba—have been cranking out the jams since 2001, developing a unique sound derived from 1970s psychedelic hard rock but extended beyond all reasonable measure. Their debut album, Sonic Prayer, was released in 2005; it contained two side-long tracks, “Flower Travelin’ Man”—a reference to Japan’s Flower Travellin’ Band—and “Lost in the Cold Sun,” a nod to Texas psychedelic rockers Cold Sun. The follow-up, 2007’s Rhythms From a Cosmic Sky, repeated the pattern; “Godspeed” and “Sonic Prayer” were each in the 21-minute range. The CD version included a cover of late ’60s/early ’70s British blues-rockers the Groundhogs‘ “Cherry Red” that was their first recording with vocals (by Mitchell).
In between their two studio albums, the trio released Sonic Prayer Jam, a live 10″ that was later expanded on CD. And after Rhythms, they put out their masterpiece, 2008’s two-CD, two-track Live at Roadburn. When another band cancelled their performance at the annual Dutch stoner/doom/metal festival, Earthless found themselves catapulted into a headlining spot, and they made the most of it. The first disc, “Blue/From the Ages,” runs a mind-warping 56 minutes; the second, a medley of “Godspeed” and “Sonic Prayer,” is a little over 35 minutes long.
It took Earthless five years to return; Rubalcaba was busy as a member of the hardcore punk all-star act Off!, while Mitchell worked with other riff-worship acts like Black Bombaim, Howlin Rain, Assemble Head In Sunburst Sound, and Golden Void. In 2013, though, they released their most epic studio statement to date, From the Ages. Two of its four tracks were 14-15 minutes long; one ran a mere 5:42; and the closing title piece was a 31-minute journey into post-Randy Holden guitar overdrive.
Well, it’s been another five years, and after a few limited-run live albums and split releases, Earthless are finally back with another studio album. But Black Heaven represents the sharpest possible left turn they could have made, short of unplugging.
Black Heaven packs six tracks into a concise 39 minutes; the longest is a mere 8:51. And four of the six feature vocals by Mitchell. His singing is both soulful and classically ’70s rock; sometimes he sounds like Grand Funk Railroad‘s Mark Farner, other times like Joe Walsh. The lyrics leave no impression, which is fine—they’re effectively filling space before the guitar solos begin. And make no mistake, every track on Black Heaven, even the 1:53 “Volt Rush,” features the face-melting guitar heroics fans have come to expect and depend on. Mitchell’s playing falls somewhere in the vein of Jimi Hendrix on his post-Band of Gypsys studio recordings (think tracks like “Freedom” or “Izabella”) and disciples like Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush. He’s added a few new tricks to his bag on this album, though, including a talk box. And his solos on tracks like the opening “Gifted By the Wind” give the impression—via judicious editing—that he’s dueling with himself. Eginton, meanwhile, is a master of driving low end, keeping the foundation strong and the pulse pounding at all times. Rubalcaba does much more than just keep the beat; he creates complex rhythmic architecture that spurs the other two on to greater and greater heights.
The second track on Black Heaven, “End to End,” features a truly massive riff, but it takes almost two minutes to arrive; the song opens with an extended feedback/noise intro. “Electric Flame” feels like the most overtly metallic song on the album, though Mitchell’s vocals are an anguished howl. “Volt Rush” flies past in a breakneck 1:53, but it’s followed by the album’s other instrumental, “Black Heaven” itself, which seems to have borrowed its main riff from Cactus‘s version of Howlin’ Wolf‘s “Evil (Is Going On).” And the album ends with “Sudden End,” an actual ballad.
The prospect of Earthless experimenting with short songs, and incorporating vocals, seemed depressing at first, but the actual results are exhilarating. Black Heaven is a blast; few, if any, fans will come away feeling disappointed by this new direction.
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