[15 November 2013]
From the Ages is the first studio recording from instrumental power trio Earthless since 2007’s Rhythms From a Cosmic Sky. Though the silence may have been deafening for their small but devoted cadre of fans, the wait was worth every moment. From the Ages finds Earthless at their most concentrated, and that distillation of psychedelic rock, stoner metal, and electric blues is a heady brew in the hands of Messrs. Rubalcaba, Eginton and Mitchell.
What makes this such a powerful mix—and what separates Earthless from other stoner rock bands with a tendency to go on (and on and on)—is that rarely, if ever, do they sound like a band merely jamming. Earthless is about improvisation, more akin to jazz than the noodling stoners that follow in the patchouli-drenched wake of jam band “explorations.” Listen closely to opening track “Violence of the Red Sea”, and hear the band state a theme, build a solo from it, and then react to the impact of the solo upon that initial form. This is not “Blues in A”, but a constructed form given room to breathe because of the near telepathic connections between the players.
Isaiah Mitchell is the obvious first attraction. His guitar playing is a constant surprise, soaring, diving, streaking through the sky like a hawk playing in the updrafts along the face of a cliff. But Mitchell isn’t untethered; listen closely, as time and again drummer Mario Rubalcaba and bassist Mike Eginton pull Mitchell out of a groundward spiral with a lift of cymbals or a rising bass line that meets Mitchell and buoys him upward. Or conversely, an insistent kick and snare line tugs downward when the guitarist seems ready to break free of gravity’s pull, the bass joining in to drag Mitchell back, the Stratocaster in his hands kicking and screaming. Earthless is like a stunt kite, and though you may be watching the guitarist and his acrobatic flights of fancy, it is the steady hands at the base that control the motion.
Even when the band dials things back, as on the nearly meditative, nearly OM-like “Equus October”, Earthless levitates in contemplation, unable to truly ground itself. Eginton’s soft, supple playing is a through line for the conversation of drums and guitar, and as those two instruments ramp, chatter, and rise in pitch and forcefulness the bass holds things neat and strong. His bass never controls that conversation, but like a good moderator he keeps it from turning into a screaming match.
All of this structure, connection, and conversational improvisation is what makes the title track work despite its more-than-30-minutes run time. “From the Ages”, first released on 2008’s Live at Roadburn, is where one measures one’s ability to handle what Earthless dish out. If “Equus October” was a pint, and “Violence of the Red Sea” and “Uluru Rock” fifths, then “From the Ages” is a gallon of the distilled spirit of the band.
In the five years since that Roadburn performance, Earthless have grown in restraint. While the live recording is a full-on burner, a nearly relentless charge from the entire band, here the themes are allowed time to evolve and reach a sense of resolution. It’s never a chore to listen to, and there are moments of pure delight greater than anywhere else on the record. But chore or no, it wears. It’s tiring to focus on their playing for such a long spell, even though that focus brings many rewards. For example, listen to the hypnotic, Arabic loops of bass, drum and restrained guitar that bubble up naturally out of the dense fug of aggressive riffs around the 13-minute mark. The slow, almost languorous build out of that passage, and the control of tension Earthless exhibit, is masterful. It isn’t the flashiest section, but the conversation these musicians are having is worth that close attention. But again, not everyone has the tolerance to drink in such a potent concoction.
Those who make it to the end, and who choose to listen again and again, will find a new Earthless; a band that has grown through side projects and geographic separation, yet returned with greater chemistry, intuitiveness, and understanding. From the Ages is not just the latest album from this long running band. It’s their best.