You hear that? That coughing? It’s coming from the direction of Earthless’ fanbase and it’s not the hacking that follows a lung-expanding haul from a gravity bong. Nope. This particular whooping is in response to the band’s latest album and the vast differences it offers.
Since 2001, this San Diego trio has pushed the limits of listening and patience by regularly offering up obscenely lengthy instrumental, psychedelic stoner rock jams. Fans have been quite happy with that methodology, thank you very much. Their first two albums, Sonic Prayer and Rhythms from a Cosmic Sky, scored them supporters around the globe and strong local attention where they won various San Diego Music Awards. The band killed it at Roadburn in 2008; so much so that they released a recording of the show—imaginatively titled Live at Roadburn—to sate the demand of those wishing to relive the transcendental set and those who’d heard through the grapevine of how incredible the performance was.
A couple of similarly structured albums (read: long-ass songs), a brief hiatus, the relocation of guitarist Isaiah Mitchell to Northern California, and signing to Nuclear Blast shaped Earthless’ world throughout the ‘10s. Yet a sweet smoke goes down a good number of wrong pipes as Black Heaven upends the band's elemental design. It may sound simple and almost mundane. For an outfit that once released a double album consisting of two songs clocking in at 56 and 35 minutes each (Live at Roadburn), having an entire six-song album roughly 40 minutes long with more vocals could be seen as sacrilege by some.
The funny thing is: for those determined to brush Earthless aside for branching out, this undeniably solid record will make any form of dismissal difficult. The longest song here is “Electric Flame” at a mere eight minutes and 51 seconds. The track embraces the animated and grittier side of bare-chested, ‘70s power trios. Mitchell’s voice may be a work in progress, but his Geddy Lee-needs-a-lozenge timbre generates soulful images of sweaty stages and bell-bottomed rock poses. The congested howl underpins a riff combining a creeping ‘n’ shuffling boogie with kaleidoscopic open chord changes before he and bassist Mark Eginton let their fingers fly.
Creating cohesive, cogent, and time restrictive compositions forces Earthless to get to the point and to plunk ideas onto one spot instead of spreading things unnecessarily thin. Opener “Given by the Wind” is essentially two riffs that sound like ‘roided up Grand Funk and James Gang. It delivers robust power chord shifts as drummer Mario Rubalcala hits the heart with a hip-shaking backbeat. The Earthless of days gone by would have stretched out this simple and infectious two-parter indefinitely. However, with great restraint comes greater impact. You can feel the tension in Mitchell, his wanting to extend the screaming lead sections. But you can also hear him pouring energy into making a more direct statement and stomping the fuck out of his wah pedal.
Personally, that the effect-heavy, space-age waves of mellow psychedelia are scaled back on Black Heaven is a welcoming plus. “Sudden End” is the record’s lone outlier with its languid pace and bluesy relaxation, while the momentum served up by the kinetic rhythmic uptick, sizzling guitar and low-end swagger in “End to End” gets time to shine unscathed and uninterrupted. For anyone thinking these alterations somehow equate to “selling out” or going soft, its important to note that the instrumental tracks—short ‘n’ sweet dance floor buster “Volt Rush” and the propulsive title track—are two of the greatest stoner rock tunes of the last decade.
Like any subgenre, the stoner/psychedelic world is one with accepted dos and don’ts and happily embraced limitations. Previous to Black Heaven, Earthless had its niche and was painted into a comfortable corner. This new album sees a heroic breaking of convention’s chain. They throw a wrench into their own state of affairs. The customary has been shattered and the result has the potential to draw in everyone from guitar nerds and potheads to black t-shirted metalheads and the hippies waiting for the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Even elitist fans determined to chug the "Hater-ade" because the band went ahead and did something different have to acknowledge a job very well done.