By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Dedicated to resurrecting the art of the psychedelic hard-rock power trio, Earthless deliver a bracing collision of expansive sounds and sternum-rattling thunder with their instrumental attack. Formed 17 years ago in San Diego by Mario Rubalcaba (Hot Snakes, Rocket from the Crypt, Black Heart Procession, Off!), bassist Mike Eginton (Electric Nazarene) and guitarist Isaiah Mitchell (Nebula, Howlin’ Rain, Golden Void), the group takes an open-ended improvisational approach to hard rock that alternately recalls the jam-heavy exploration of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, modern Japanese psych purveyors like Acid Mothers Temple and more obscure ’70s riff alchemists like Dust and the Groundhogs.
The group released its impressive debut Sonic Prayer on Gravity in 2005 and two years later followed up that effort with Rhythms from a Cosmic Sky, an album that dazzled critics and fans alike. Locking into epic grooves stretching to 20 minutes and even longer without losing their dynamic upward trajectory, the band’s transcendent live performances have earned Earthless a reputation as one of the best heavy music acts performing today.
The trio took some time off after the release of Live at Roadburn (a ripping two-disc document of the trio’s blistering 2008 performances at the famed Dutch festival of the same name), though they did contribute its first original song featuring vocals with Mitchell singing entitled “Demon Lady” to a split 2011 EP with like-minded bands Danava and Lecherous Gaze for the Kemado label.
The break allowed members to focus their energies on a variety of projects. Mitchell relocated to the Bay Area where he founded his popular band Golden Void, while Rubalcaba played with both a reunited Hot Snakes and Rocket From the Crypt in addition to putting out several albums and touring with former Black Flag/Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris in hardcore revival band Off!
The band reconvened in 2012 to tour and released another studio effort, From the Ages, the following year. Hailed by many as the band’s best yet, the double album featured three sprawling epics. The title tune clocked in at over 30 minutes, while two other songs — the transporting opener “Violence of the Red Sea” and “Uluru Rock” — both stretched to 14 minutes of face-melting intensity.
The band has toured regularly since that album, but has only issued a couple of new tunes in the interim, releasing the savage track “End to End” for free download in 2016. Only their third song to feature Mitchell’s vocals, the tune shows the band is just as adroit at crafting hooky concise rock burners as it is extended improvisations. Earthless also put out a split 12″ with Tee Pee Records labelmates Harsh Toke that featured the opiated Meters-meets-Eddie Hazel groove of “Acid Crusher.”
But the long wait for a new Earthless full-length effort is finally ending. Last August, the band announced that it signed to Nuclear Blast and would release it’s first new album in five years after recording sessions at the famed Rancho De La Luna studio in Joshua Tree with noted guitar hero Dave Catching (Eagles of Death Metal, Queens of the Stone Age, earthlings?) producing the sessions.
A marked departure for Earthless, the new effort Black Heaven features four vocal tracks with Mitchell singing and included far more songwriting input from the guitarist than past effort. At turns recalling the James Gang and Thin Lizzy (propulsive opening track “Gifted By the Wind”) or a diabolical melding of Zeppelin, Funkadelic and Hendrix (the monstrous instrumental title track), the new tunes may be the trio’s most focused and formidable yet. For their current tour to promote the new recording, Earthless teams up with another established band of psych wayfarers in Japanese outfit Kikagaku Moyo.
Kikagaku Moyo has built a solid global following in the space of a few short years. The Tokyo band got it’s start when principle songwriter Go Kurosawa (drums/vocals) and Tomo Katsurada (guitar/vocals) founded the band as a loose music collective, busking in the streets as a duo while refining an acoustic psych-folk sound that echoed the influence of German hippy experimentalists Amon Düül and Japanese band Taj Mahal Travellers.
They would add bass player Kotsu Guy and guitarist Daoud Popal, eventually expanding to a five piece when Go’s brother Ryu Kurosawa returned to Japan after studying sitar in India. The band recorded it’s first EP in the space of a day and posted it to their Bandcamp page. Those recordings would attract attention from interested listeners across the globe, including small Greek imprint Cosmic Eye Records who offered to issue a limited run of vinyl.
The band’s has continued to raise it’s profile with a steady stream of recordings that showcased a sound that — like their modern Japanese psych forebears in Ghost — deftly shifted from meditative acoustic grooves to howling, guitar-fueled space rock excursions into orbit. In 2015, the group issued a pair of 7-inch singles with mutual admirers Moon Duo (the noted U.S. drone/psych band that got its start in San Francisco) and Acid Mothers Temple guitarist Kawabata Makoto backed by Seattle group Kinski as part of a special series for God Unknown Records that quickly became collectors items.
Touring the world extensively with jaunts to Australia, the United States (they played Desert Daze in Southern California and the Austin Psych Fest in 2014) and Europe in addition to their native Japan, Kikagaku Moyo has established a reputation as a powerhouse performing unit. The group recently issued a follow-up to their acclaimed 2016 effort House in the Tall Grass that came out on Guruguru Brain Records. The new Stone Garden EP finds the quintet in propulsive, stoner-psych mode, unleashing some of their most compelling music yet.
The two bands are joined on the tour by opening act Jjuujjuu, a Los Angeles-based quartet anchored by guitarist/singer Phil Pirrone and drummer Andrew Clinco along with a variety of rotating guests. Fresh from a pair of blistering shows in the Bay Area at San Rafael’s Terrapin Crossroads and the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco as well as two sold-out shows at the band’s home base of San Diego, Earthless and company play one more Bay Area show in Santa Cruz Monday night before continuing the national tour.
Earthless with Kikagaku Moyo and Jjuujjuu
Monday, March 5, 8:30 p.m. $20-$22
The Catalyst Atrium