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Earthless: Shouting into the darkness

Wednesday 26th, September 2018 / 12:00
By Christine Leonard

Earthless find a voice in Black Heaven
Photo by Atiba Jefferson

CALGARY – When we last spoke to Earthless back in 2015, the legendary Californian psych-rock outfit was adjusting to the geographic gap between band members. Drummer Mario Rubalcaba (OFF!, Hot Snakes, Clikitat Ikatowi, Rocket from the Crypt), guitarist Isaiah Mitchell (Nebula, Drunk Horse, Howlin’ Rain) and bass player Mike Eginton (Electric Nazarene) had found themselves homesteading at opposite ends of their state’s winding coastal highway. Long distance relationships are notoriously challenging, but at the time it was hard to say what impact working in isolation would have on the group’s ability to make another album. Three years on, it’s apparent that Earthless have figured out exactly how to turn a negative into a positive. According to Rubalcaba, the trio may not have come up with their latest LP, Black Heaven (March 2018, Nuclear Blast), if they hadn’t been forced to work in new and innovative ways.

“I would say that we just had to have a bit more focus and discipline time-wise, as we had to work on a tighter schedule compared to the past,” he reports. “We would do like three-day blocks of writing and working on tunes. We’d then record them, and Isaiah would take them back and listen for any vocal ideas. Some stuff just happened in the jam room, as well. Which is always the best part of writing – when something happens spontaneously.”

That’s right, for the first time Earthless has added a consistent vocal presence to their sprawling Hendrix-inspired soundscapes. A bold step forward for the customarily mute band that has typically favoured the hum of steel strings over organic vocal chords.

“Well, we always knew Isaiah could sing. He had a couple ideas that he shared with us and they were great, so we went with it and then before you knew it–BAM–we had four songs with vocals. Wasn’t planned, and like all other previous Earthless material, it just had to happen how it happened.”

A significant addition for any ensemble, but the veteran percussionist assures that putting Mitchell’s voice into the mix hasn’t required Earthless to depart from their usual approach to crafting eight-minute odes to riff worship. Working once again with producer/engineer/Eagles of Death Metal guitarist Dave Catching at his Rancho de la Luna Studios in Joshua Tree, the band felt comfortable letting things unfold naturally as their brought Black Heaven up to its full potential.

Photo by Atiba Jefferson

“He is just a super chill and good vibe person to have around. He wasn’t overbearing with ideas but he would say something if he felt he needed to and that was good input to have.”

Apparently, the effect of this laid-back approach was magnetically reversed during the recording process; Black Heaven is anything but mellow. In fact, it’s safe to say that fans will be blown away by the intensity and dynamism of power-jams like “Electric Flame” and “Volt Rush.”

“It’s more high-energy as a whole and has a lot more of a groove aspect. Still has plenty of psychedelic touches too!” Rubalcaba confirms of the band’s first purely Earthless studio LP since, From the Ages (Tee Pee Record), dropped in 2013.

“Nothing too crazy, I really love Isaiah’s lyrics on this album, though. He might be better to ask for the deeper meaning! He did an amazing job putting it all together, I must say.”

Mining key elements from ‘70s rock and metal to give Black Heaven that certain swagger, Earthless interprets those throwback sounds and pulls out their finest qualities in a way that doesn’t seem dated or awkward. Rather, they embody what endures most from those smoky, shaggy, stadium rock lovin’ eras.

“We have always had a strong love for ZZ Top, James Gang and Cream, as well as other more obscure bands. Maybe this time around more of our classic rock influences are showing? I don’t know, we don’t sit and talk about this stuff much. And, even if we did once we get into the room and start playing, the music starts to just do its own thing anyway. We aren’t always in control and that’s great.”

Giving over to the muse and the momentum of the moment, Earthless have outdone themselves the Black Heaven (named for its working title in the tradition of Blue Harvest).

It’s not easy to change a formula, especially one that’s served them so well in the past, but with the introduction of guitarist Mitchell’s soaring vocals Earthless has opened up a whole new strata of possibilities. A gamble that will undoubtedly yield remarkable works and multiple rotations in orbital cycles yet to come.

“We knew some people and older fans might not receive it so well, or be concerned,” the veteran rocker acknowledges.

“We as a band can’t really worry about that stuff though, otherwise–if we did–we wouldn’t have sounded the way we did when we started out! People either loved or hated us at first. No in-between. Earthless needs to do what makes Earthless happy, always!”

Earthless perform October 3 at The Park Theatre (Winnipeg), October 5 at Amigos Cantina (Saskatoon), October 6 The Palomino Smokehouse and Social Club (Calgary), and October 7 at Up & Downtown Music Festival w/ Brant Bjork, Radio Moscow (Edmonton)

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