I think one of the worst things that can happen as a fan of a metal band is when that band softens their sound. There’s really nothing more disappointing than when your favorite metal band drop the rough edges and darker vibes for a slick production, bluesy riffs, and bloody ballads. Metallica comes to mind as a band that went from progressive, epic tracks about the disenfranchised and disaffected to down-tuned blues dirges and nary a double kick in sight(they’ve turned things around, but man we had nearly a decade of pop metal and questionable hairstyles.) Or take Mastodon. Their first three albums were punishing metal. Just absolute skull-crushing speed and lightning fast riffs. Now they’re into steroided Skynyrd. Corrosion of Conformity were punk and speed metal, only to end up Pepper Keenan’s Blackfoot cover band. All of the above mentioned bands continued to make solid records, just not nearly as heavy as they were at the beginning.
My point is that when metal goes soft it can be rather disappointing. That’s why when I’d heard that Earthless’ new album Black Heaven was going to have vocals and was only going to be 36 minutes long I instantly worried that yet another amazing metal band was going the way of retro southern blues rock. Thankfully that is not the case, folks. The San Diego trio, which consists of guitarist/vocalist Isaiah Mitchell, bassist Mike Eginton, and drummer Mario Rubalcaba are as heavy as ever.
I’d never considered Earthless quite metal, per say. They’ve always been a power trio in the same way that Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were. That is to say they groove hard and fast and will occasionally hit the hyperdrive and take off for space. Mitchell’s guitar style is very much late-60s(Hendrix, Page, Clapton) with a touch of Rory Gallagher soul for good measure. But with the rhythm section of bassist Mike Eginton and drummer Mario Rubalcaba the band can’t help but have a heavy low end. They add the brute force of Zeppelin and Sabbath to give Mitchell’s guitar that added oomph. The six songs that make up Black Heaven have plenty of oomph. Big riffs in manageable sized songs. The longest being nearly nine minutes, while the shortest is just under two minutes. So if you’re looking for album-side length space jams you may be disappointed. If you’re looking for buzzing scorched earth rockers, you’ve come to the right place.
“Gifted By The Wind” starts things out beautifully, with Rubalcaba shaking the earth with his massive drum sound and Mitchell and Eginton riffing like there’s no tomorrow. Mitchell also sings on this opening track. His vocals fit into the late 60s/early 70s heavy rock mold rather well. Soulful and melodic, he doesn’t overdo it. He serves the song perfectly. And of course he melts your face with his solos as usual. Absolutely brilliant playing. “End to End” opens on a barrage of guitar squall and feedback as if the band was summoning some great spirit from deep inside the earth. Soon enough though, they lock into a driving groove and never let up. Mitchell’s vocals fit right into this bluesy jam of a song, and they never try to outdo his guitar playing. Once he gets going there’s no stopping him. Absolutely brilliant playing all around here.
There are only two songs on Black Heaven that are completely instrumental, the nearly two minute “Volt Rush” which leads into title track “Black Heaven”. It feels as if the album builds up to these two tracks. While Mitchell’s vocals are fine, I feel Earthless truly shine in their instrumental moments. Comparisons to other bands, be it classic or contemporary, stop when these three are in their natural element of guitar, bass, and drums. They hit the mark every time when these three are in musical orbit. “Volt Rush” is exactly that, a blitzkrieg rush of guitars, bass, and massive drums. It’s an absolute rev up to the behemoth that is “Black Heaven”. It’s starts out almost like some post-apocalyptic version of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” but quickly goes full gonzo blues metal. I’ve heard Rubalcaba talk about his love for John Bonham and that love comes thru on this track. Nobody is jamming like this nowadays. There me be folks trying, but not at this level of dexterity and soul.
Black Heaven feels like the Earthless formula concentrated down to a compact level. They’ve honed in those album side space jams to 5 to 8 minute songs and it works beautifully. Mitchell steps up to the mic and adds a layer of bluesy, soulful melody on the face-melting jams. Maybe working at this kind of run time we can get albums more often than every five years. Even so, we’ve got Black Heaven to bide our time with until that next one.