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Album review: Earthless makes changes but remains rock-solid on 'Black Heaven'

It's been almost five years since the last Earthless album, "From the Ages," was released, and the band's legend has continued to grow in the interim. While the San Diego-based rockers are probably never destined for mega-stardom, their chemistry...

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It's been almost five years since the last Earthless album, "From the Ages," was released, and the band's legend has continued to grow in the interim. While the San Diego-based rockers are probably never destined for mega-stardom, their chemistry as a unit and the skills of standout guitarist Isaiah Mitchell are selling points that have drawn the group plenty of attention.

Earthless' new album, "Black Heaven," isn't a huge change-up from the band, as it's still chock full of bouncy, greasy Black Sabbath-style riffs, but the trio has with this record discarded their instrumental, heavily-improvised approach for a more traditional one. Here, Mitchell sings on almost every track, and song lengths stay under 10 minutes. (Given that "From the Ages" boasted a title track that was a half-hour long, "Black Heaven" comes off almost like a streamlined punk LP, in comparison.)

Mitchell actually has plenty of experience as a singer. He's done time at the mic in Earthless on a few cover songs (including a take on The Groundhogs' "Cherry Red," and anyone who can breathe life into the great, underappreciated music of Tony McPhee deserves a medal for service to rock and roll), and he sings lead in his other band, Golden Void, who aren't as intense and heavy as Earthless but are moodier and more psychedelic. Mitchell's voice is weirdly reminiscent of Stone Gossard's, of all people, but both the Pearl Jam guitarist and Mitchell share a pleasantly-nasal quality that is somewhat rare.

You'd think a (mostly) instrumental band turning (mostly) vocal would be weird, but it's weirder that the band still sounds like themselves on "Black Heaven." It's a six-track album, but half the songs are more than eight minutes apiece, which means there's lots of time for Mitchell to get outside the verses and choruses, stretch out, and take some gnarly solos that reassert him as one of the best rock guitarists around.

Opener "Gifted by the Wind" wastes no time getting to the point. After a low-key wah-wah intro, the band comes thundering in, quickly making the case that drummer Mario Rubalcaba and bassist Mike Eginton are one of the swingingest rock-and-roll rhythm sections around. The bass and drums of Earthless are huge, but they breathe. So many heavy bands in this day and age are rigid and made to sound as "tight" as possible by computer recording technology, but Earthless is informed more by classic bands from rock's Golden Age like the aforementioned Groundhogs and Black Sabbath (whose "Supernaut" is undoubtedly a jumping-off point for the harmonized guitars in "Gifted by the Wind"), but also by groups like Led Zeppelin, Mountain, Cream, Grand Funk Railroad, and Santana.

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"End to End" features an apocalyptic beginning but transitions into a groove that wouldn't have sounded strange coming from Funkadelic circa "Maggot Brain." The song positively takes off at the 3:30 mark, when Mitchell starts stacking harmonized guitar tracks and then detonates the whole thing with a face-melter of a solo that carries through to the end of the tune. Rubalcaba and Eginton subtly push Mitchell forward and draw him back when the need arises.

This is the thing about an Earthless album, whether it's got lots of vocals on it or not: the band moves as one organism. They have that telepathic-communication thing going, and it imbues the music with a feeling of life. They sound like people playing music together, and, in an increasingly gridded-out, Pro-Tooled world, it's a thrill to hear a power trio in 2018 playing like they're opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience and trying to blow him off the stage.

Go into "Black Heaven" not looking for hit songs to sing along to. Go into it looking to be spirited away by people who understand the transportive, hypnotic power of rock and roll.

Black Heaven

Artist: Earthless

Album: "Black Heaven"

Recorded at: Rancho De La Luna, California

Produced by: David Catching

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Website: www.earthlessofficial.com

Personnel: Isaiah Mitchell (guitar, vocals), Mike Eginton (bass), Mario Rubalcaba (drums)

Related Topics: MUSIC
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