It hasn’t been as long as it can seem since last we heard from instrumental San Diego trio Earthless, whose last studio full-length was 2007’s Rhythms from a Cosmic Sky. The next year, they released Live at Roadburn (arguably their high-water mark to date), and since then, between a rerelease of 2005’s Sonic Prayer Jam, a 10th anniversary jam EP in 2012 and splits with Witch in 2008, Premonition 13/Radio Moscow in 2012 and While Hills in 2013, they haven’t been completely absent leading up to the issue of their third LP, From the Ages (Tee Pee Records), but there can be little doubt that the greater accomplishments of the band’s members during that stretch have taken place outside of Earthless itself. Notably, drummer Mario Rubalcaba joined forces with former Black Flag vocalist Keith Morris and members of Burning Brides and Redd Kross in OFF!, and also played in punk outfit Spider Fever, while guitarist Isaiah Mitchell made a stunning debut in 2012 with the self-titled Golden Void (review here), also taking on a vocal role that was new to those who knew him solely from his work in Earthless. All this led to speculation that Earthless were finished, but in terms of From the Ages, that just seems to mean that it arrives with all the more fanfare surrounding it; even as the first announcements were being made, the excitement was palpable that Mitchell and Rubalcaba had once again joined forces with bassist Mike Eginton for a studio offering. Comprised of four tracks totaling a solid hour of ripping classic rock jams, From the Ages says in a big way that in fact not only are Earthless not done, but that the vibrant spirit that rested at the heart of the original 2005 Sonic Prayer and the terrifying chemistry that showed itself on Live at Roadburn and put Earthless on the fast track to stoner-rock-legends status are well intact and still very much at the core of what the trio does. They remain instrumental for the duration (in case anyone was wondering if Mitchell might throw in some vocals post-Golden Void), and tap into a rare prowess and classic rock versatility throughout the four mostly-extended cuts, culminating in the 31-minute epic title-track.
I’m rarely one for double LPs, though Earthless have been consistent all along in their flair for the sonically and structurally grandiose, so it’s not at all unexpected that From the Ages would arrive in that form, and to be fair, there isn’t really a way the album could work without all four of its pieces and still accomplish the same immersive feel. A double it is, then. Helping their case is the fact that each song leading up to the concluding “From the Ages” presents a personality of its own, whether it’s the solo-laden swirl of opener “Violence of the Red Sea” (14:46), the more restrained heavy psych of “Uluru Rock” (14:08), the exploratory vibing of shorter “Equus October” (5:43) or of course “From the Ages” (30:56) itself, which both ties the others together and expands the soundscape in much the way an earthquake might turn plains into mountains. Mitchell‘s guitar leads for most of the album’s duration — seeming especially forward as he rock-shreds solos on “Violence of the Red Sea” and “From the Ages” — but the story of From the Ages isn’t about any one of the three players nearly as much as it is about the exciting music they make in combination. As “Violence of the Red Sea” gets started, Earthless seem to be shaking off the dust of the years since Rhythms from a Cosmic Sky, almost winding themselves up, but they quickly lock in a groove brilliantly underscored by classy fills from Eginton and by the time they’re past the minute mark, so is the hook. The tones of Mitchell and Eginton, as captured by producer Phil Manley, are organic but not at the expense of clarity, and Rubalcaba‘s drums come through with a suitable wash of cymbal and pop in the snare, giving From the Ages a fresh, still-punkish jam room feel. Effects are layered in, but the course is set, and the album carries on from the Red Sea to the other side of the world with “Uluru Rock,” named for the sandstone mass also known as Ayers Rock in Australia’s Northern Territory. As “Equus October” refers to a Roman ritual sacrifice to Mars, the God of War, and “From the Ages” is as grand in scale and scope as the jump from the Mideast to Australia is geographically, it should be clear that Earthless are thinking big in multiple dimensions — time and space, specifically. The music mirrors that. Eight minutes in, “Violence of the Red Sea” turns somewhat chaotic, but the course resumes with upbeat fervor, wah and riff colliding as the rhythm section holds firm to the ground its has established, keeping the whole thing from going off the rails of whatever means of interstellar conveyance it might be using for its journey. As the listener would have to expect, they finish in monumental style.
Though its pulse isn’t as immediately running as the opener, “Uluru Rock” makes up for that intensity with a lush vibe, Eginton, Rubalcaba and Mitchell once again each contributing to a whole that feeds off their individual contributions to be complete. No less coated in wah, “Uluru Rock” is the moment when on a linear format — CD or digital — one is really likely to lose one’s self in From the Ages. As they continue to build on the slower progression and Mitchell‘s guitar echo spreads itself out overtop the bass and drums, the repetition gets hypnotic and the band moves forward with added synth sounds (could be another layer of guitar around six minutes in) to ride that groove, once more held in check by Eginton and Rubalcaba as Mitchell seems more intent on weaving leads around and through the figure of the riff itself. They’re jamming. Maybe that’s the best way to put it. But in so doing, Earthless don’t feel necessarily like they’re without a plan of action. That was true on “Violence of the Red Sea” as well, and even if the guitar solos are improvised on the spot — it’s hard to imagine they were written out note for note and memorized, but anything’s possible — where they’re placed within the songs feels geared toward maximizing the overarching build, guiding the audience through the jam. One can hear it also in the switch in Rubalcaba‘s drums after nine minutes into “Uluru Rock,” as he moves to a couple measures of double-time to match the increased intensity of Mitchell‘s Hendrixian reconnoitering and in the Cactus-worthy peak of the track itself, which by its end has come so far from its beginning as to give the impression of having crossed over the terrain for which it’s named. Given the scale of what surrounds it, it’s hard to think of the ensuing “Equus October” as much more than an interlude, but if it’s that, it’s appreciable as such, its subdued course giving a much-needed moment for listeners to collect themselves after “Uluru Rock” and either get further lost in From the Ages‘ cosmic aspects or at least get setup for the the gut-punch to come as screaming guitar fades up into the sudden percussive beginning of the title-track, the cooler heavy psych mood of the third piece contrasted almost immediately by the scorch of the fourth as it gets underway, all jazz turns and restless shuffle.
“From the Ages” itself has been around in one form or another for at least five years — a version appeared on Live at Roadburn — though you’d hardly know it from the drive with which it’s delivered. The opening minutes, layered with various forms of screaming wah, rest over a bed of extended grade punk, but there are no shortage of twists as the wide-set voyage of the song plays out. It is an album on its own and clearly intended as such, but engaging and fluid despite a possibly overblown ideology. At four minutes in, the trio crash and introduce a more mid-paced swing, picking it up as they go with Eginton‘s bass working excellently with and then in support of Mitchell‘s guitar while Rubalcaba keeps the motion forward while also varying his drums, switching between hi-hat and crash, tossing in snare fills, whatever it may be. They’re at full boil before long, but they cut back again to the riff at hand and move at about 6:30 to a more open-seeming portion, Mitchell once more taking a solo over it. That’s no surprise by now, but Earthless continue to play one side of “From the Ages” off the other, a quicker, heads-down movement meeting with a contrasting groovier slowdown, until as they approach the middle of the track, they open further to psych guitar interplay and an emerging focus on the drums, which come more forward to propel the jam as Mitchell spaces out with a background wash of effects and Eginton keeps pace in the bassline. Tension is built and deconstructed as they shift past 20 minutes — Rubalcaba putting on not so much a show as a clinic in how to have fun with toms — and though they quiet down, the bass reminds that there’s still movement at hand and a payoff coming. It arrives prior to 22 minutes in and is no less satisfying than one could want, bringing back the riff from roughly 10 minutes earlier to serve as the climax that will be reshaped and toyed with as the remaining minutes count down. They finish noisy into a slowdown that begins after 26 minutes and continues gradually in one of the biggest “big rock finish” endings I’ve ever heard on record, the full last minute-plus dedicated to cymbal wash, amp noise and sustained notes. Just as you knew it was beginning at the start of “Violence of the Red Sea,” you know it’s over when “From the Ages” is done, and in part because of that symmetry, the vastness of the album seems to come with a sense of mastery at work. It’s been a long time since Rhythms from a Cosmic Sky or even Live at Roadburn, but Earthless sound wholly revitalized here and perhaps more aware of their project than they’ve ever come across. There’s a lot to figure between here and there, but in breathing new life into their methodology at its most pivotal, Earthless may not have made a record From the Ages so much as for them.