Album Review: Earthless Bow to No One on Black Heaven

In the eyes of many fans, there is no crime more reprehensible a band can commit than “selling out.” And while the times have changed with regard to the actual selling of one’s music for commercial purposes (ask anyone old enough to remember about the backlash regarding The Rolling Stones being featured in a Windows commercial, or hearing The Beatles’ Revolution in a Nike ad), there is another form of selling out that is still seen as generally vile and traitorous: changing your musical style, namely to go more mainstream and sell more records. Perhaps the most famous example in the rock/metal world is Metallica’s 1991 self-titled “Black” album, which caused considerable backlash among the band’s die-hard fans; more recently, metalcore band Suicide Silence met with extreme backlash (and approximately a 70% drop in sales from their previous album) when they debuted a new sound with a nu-metal influence and more clean vocals.

San Diego’s mostly instrumental psychedelic rock trio Earthless  have enjoyed a relatively small but loyal following over the course of their 13 year career, spanning three studio and three live albums, but for their new release, Black Heaven (Nuclear Blast), they decided to go in a slightly different direction. The question is, will it cost them any fans (or cred)?

Black Heaven sports only six songs over the course of its 40 minute running time, which may sound like some long songs, until you realize their last album, 2013’s From the Ages, featured a 30 minute-plus title track. The new album has no songs over 9 minutes, and is the first Earthless album to feature vocals on nearly every track. Considering the band made a name for itself by playing extended instrumental jams, these changes could be seen as major rocks of the proverbial boat. Some fans were quick to voice their skepticism when learning of the shift for the new record, and upon the album’s release some remained unhappy. But any grievances have to be taken with a grain of salt—the tilt in dynamics on Black Heaven is slight, and the changes feel very organic.

One thing that hasn’t changed: Isaiah Mitchell’s guitar work is still blistering. He plays with an intensity many other guitarists lack, which helps keep lengthy solos from getting too boring or self-indulgent. Another constant on the album is the tight rhythm section of Mike Eginton on bass and Mario Rubiclava behind the drums, propelling the songs forward—psychedelic rock sometimes has a tendency to meander, but Earthless have a sense of urgency that sets them apart.

Listening to Black Heaven calls to mind several different heavy rock and blues-based bands, from Mountain and Ten Years After, all the way to contemporaries like Indigenous, Gary Clark, Jr., and The Stone Foxes. Earthless may not be forging much new ground in the psychedelic rock landscape—Mitchell’s vocals are in the passable, good-but-not-great realm; the songs sound instantly familiar with the first listen, and somewhat forgettable upon the album’s completion—but to their credit, they do what they do well.

In fact, with a slightly more accessible album in Black Heaven, the only thing stopping Earthless from breaking through to a bigger audience is exposure. How they get that remains to be seen—perhaps breaking from the stoner rock/doom metal circuit to play with more blues-based bands like Gov’t Mule or even someone like Alabama Shakes would give them a nudge toward the spotlight that wouldn’t upset their fans.

Then again, who knows? Maybe they just need to sell a song or two to a car maker.

Bottom Line: If you’re a fan of Earthless or heavy blues psychedelic/stoner rock, there’s plenty to like. If you’re not, this probably won’t change your mind.

Grade: B–

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