By Dave Pehling
SAN JOSE (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 18 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 finally ended last year when 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, Black Heaven features four vocal tracks with Mitchell singing and included far more songwriting input from the guitarist than past efforts. 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.
The trio has been touring heavily ever since the album’s release last year, serving as artist-in-residence at Roadburn 2018 in Holland where they performed with legendary Can singer Damo Suzuki and their spring tourmates Kikagaku Moyo as well as criss-crossing the states. The band has also issued a live album recorded during a San Francisco date at the Great American Music Hall that captured intense performances of the new songs plus a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown.” Packaged to mirror a classic Trademark of Quality Zeppelin bootleg from the early ’70s, the ferocious concert document From the West was issued on vinyl via Sliver Current Records and saw CD release on Nuclear Blast last fall with additional songs not included on the record version.
With the recent announcement that Mitchell would be joining a new line-up of the Black Crowes as their lead guitarist next year for an extensive tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of that band’s 1990 debut Shake Your Money Maker, this could be the last chance fans have to see Earthless in the near future. For this show presented by folkYEAH! at the Ritz in San Jose, the trio will be joined by South Bay heavy rock outfit Kook. In the short space of four years, the San Jose band has risen to become one of the most interesting doom crews to emerge from the city this side of influential stoner-rock titans Sleep. Founded by veteran guitarist Karl Larson (who was an early member of Sleep guitarist Matt Pike’s band High On Fire before they decided to strip down to a trio) and original drummer Mike Donofrio in 2015, Kook would eventually be filled out by bassist Jeff Wilson and singer Troy Aschenbrenner.
Crafting a wildly diverse sound that — while rooted in ‘the classic blues-tinged template of 70s heavy rock — drew freely everything from ’60s psychedelia to ’90s alternative rock and grunge to modern doom, Kook would emerge with the group’s debut album I in 2017. The opening chapter of what the band has outlined as a sprawling, conceptual sci-fi trilogy about the destruction of Earth, the recording announced Kook as a unique new voice in the Bay Area.
Playing a steady string of gigs locally along with occasional regional tours through different parts of the U.S., Kook would pick up a new drummer in Eric Wilkins (of industrial-metal outfit Klank) while building on its reputation for cathartic, crushingly heavy live performances. For the band’s latest effort issued earlier this year, the appropriately entitled second album II, Kook made a quantum leap forward in refining the band’s idiosyncratic approach to creating sprawling doom epics (the songs mostly clock in at seven minutes or longer) that unfurl the second installment of their apocalyptic space saga.
Earthless with Kook
Tuesday, Dec. 3, 7 p.m. $18-$22