LIVE: Earthless @ Islington Assembly Hall

By Jay Hampshire

In the broad spectrum of things, there are two kinds of bands. The first kind find their niche, their signature sound, and settle into it for the long haul, happy to keep sailing the same sonic seas. The second kind constantly seek to innovate, to mix things up, and to change their formula.

San Francisco trio Earthless seemed to be the former; dedicated psychonauts who were more than content plying their long form, jam centric trade. Since forming in 2001, their material has largely been blues-fused, acid dripping constructions of squealing solos and shuffling grooves, mostly instrumental and with track lengths stretching into the half hour runtime mark. After years of blowing minds on disc and on the road, this had won them a dedicated fan base who were more than happy with which side of the bread Earthless decided to cosmically butter.

That was until 2018, and the release of fifth full length ‘Black Heaven’. The unthinkable had happened – the tracks had been curtailed to below ten minutes, there were more of them, they’d been hammered out into structured songs rather than spiralling improvs, and (gasp) Isaiah Mitchell had started singing more often than ever before.

But Earthless are canny. They knew such a shift (albeit structural rather than stylistic) would cause rumblings among their fan base. That’s why their sets on their European tour have been comprised of old standards as well as fresh cuts. Tonight’s stop at Islington Assembly Hall is no different. Stepping on stage in front of a shimmering backdrop, the trio waste no time locking into their signature cosmic grooves. Mitchell frequently detours into flights of fretwork fancy, dizzying, they bloom with seemingly endless capacity to surprise, speaking louder than lyrics could.

Lesser bands would find a rift developing – the lead guitarist becoming the sole focal point. Not so with Earthless. Mitchell never oversteps the mark, never truly leaving bassist Mike Eginton and sticksman Mario Rubalcaba playing catch up. They operate as a seamless, interconnected whole, an organic melding of music and minds. Eginton and Rubalcaba dial in the groove, holding down the swinging rhythms and summiting surprising turns of driving speed. It keeps the rapt attention of an increasingly sweaty Assembly Hall crowd throughout.

It’s not just their own instrumental might that’s exercised tonight – the band pay homage to some of their influences with some well-placed covers. The Groundhog’s ‘Cherry Red’ is given boisterous life, beefed out with palm muted chugging and trilling guitars, while Led Zeppelin’s ‘Communication Breakdown’ blazes with all the fire of the original.

Far from just operating a musical time warp of retro riffage, Earthless channel all the timeless flair of their seventies acid tripping forebears with a relentless technical skill and focussed unity that speaks of road hardened, time won professionalism. Whether an old school purist or a new convert, nobody will be leaving tonight without having had their mind blown by the goodtime vibes. Earthmore, please.