The act of musical evolution can be a jarring experience for fans and listeners, and honestly not always an altogether pleasant one. Watching our favorite acts incorporate new elements, sonic textures, or thematic directions into their work is often a very mixed bag. Some bands (recently reviewed death metallers Of Feather and Bone, for example, as well as historically established acts like Mastodon, Darkthrone, Bathory, and a slew of others) pull off a genre change or the incorporation of new elements to their music with skill and finesse. Others (too numerous to name individually) crash and burn in the fires of change, losing their fan base or general musical identity through unsuccessful attempts to break outside their norm. California’s Earthless can count themselves among that former group of bands with their fourth record, Black Heaven. With three psych rock instrumental records under their belt, the band made the decision to add vocals to four of the album’s six tracks, a bold and potentially off-putting move for a band whose fans are used to a very particular type of music. Are the results worth the band’s full investment in a new sonic direction? Thankfully, the answer to this questions is an emphatic yes.
If I were to summarize this record in one sentence, it would read a little something like this: Black Heaven takes everything that Earthless does well and amplifies it. Fantastic. We can all go home now. But since this is a full-length review and not a PR blurb, we’re going to dive a bit deeper than that. But that sentence really does encapsulate the beauty of Black Heaven. The band have not lost a wit of their psych rock chops, as the instrumentation throughout the record is stellar. Guitarist and newly christened vocalist Isaiah Mitchell’s riffs and solos buzz and rip through these tracks with the conviction of a seasoned front-man leading his band to absolute victory. His excellent musicianship is present from the first riff of opening track “Gifted by the Wind”, which establishes the album’s sound as well as Mitchell’s clear talents as a vocalist. This whole vocal experiment could have crashed and burned if Mitchell weren’t such a clearly talented singer. He croons, bellows, and yells with all the passion of Ozzy in his heyday, which fits perfectly well with the music, which takes more than a few cues from Black Sabbath’s groovier fare. Vestiges of stoner and desert rock are also abundant here, as the finale of “Gifted by the Wind” makes very apparent, with a vocal passage ripped straight from the Queens of the Stone Age playbook. “End to End” doubles down on the Ozzy vibes vocally, while allowing the music to head in decidedly more psychedelic directions propelled by a fantastically open and energetic performance on the kit by Mario Rubalcaba. The album is absolutely stuffed with a deep sense of groove, provided ably by Mike Egington’s memorable and catchy bass work, which provides the album with a nearly Kyuss-like rhythmic undercurrent. The performances across the band are top notch from start to finish, with few missteps that do anything do diminish the album’s overall appeal. The instrumental tag-team of “Volt Rush” and the album’s title track is a welcome centerpiece to an album showcasing a band fully bought into its new identity, providing enough solos to fill several other albums. It’s a beastly interlude of musical dexterity and a real treat that should satisfy long-time fans of the band.
While a thoroughly good time, Black Heaven doesn’t necessarily do anything new for the genre in which it operates, which is one of the few potential knocks one could give it. Your mileage with a band like Earthless will vary depending on your enjoyment of this brand of music, and if you are looking for manic innovation or unusual sounds you won’t find that here. This is straight-up classic psych rock with complimentary stoner and desert rock elements. It sounds fantastic, of course, with Eagles of Death Metal’s Dave Catching ably helming the record’s production in Joshua Tree, but there is little in the way of experimentation here. In my mind, the straightforward nature of the music is without question a net positive, as it allows these musicians to focus their songwriting into a cohesive structure that allows each performance to shine at maximum capacity, allowing the record to remain fast, open, and ridiculously danceable throughout. It’s about as complete of a package that a fan of this type of music could ask for.
Adding sound-altering elements into your music on album four takes guts. Earthless have this particular character trait in spades, lending fantastic results to their music in the process. Black Heaven has fast become my favorite Earthless record, and marks bold new territory for the band’s sonic present and future. These are musicians operating symbiotically and with a uniform vision, and it shows. The performances, songwriting, and production on this record are all worthy of commendation. If you enjoy heavy music with some groove and psychedelic elements attached, do not sleep on this record. Well worth the time you will invest in it.
Black Heaven is available now for purchase through Nuclear Blast Records, and is currently streaming on major services.