Taking in the name of Earthship, and the stunning artwork in which the CD comes packaged, you’d be completely forgiven for expecting this to be a patchouli-scented outing in the vein of Earthless or Sleep. Earthship, however, are not even closely related to those sleepy, stoner brethren, preferring to trudge the sparsely populated path of Neurosis-referencing sludge rock instead, the album bristling with a sense of rage that is tempered only by occasional progressive flourishes in the vein of Mastadon which see hints of melody allowed to penetrate the otherwise glutinous wall of guitars that coats each track.
Opening track ‘Old Widow’s gloom’ is a perfect case in point. Eschewing any sort of build-up, Earthship hit the ground running with a furious riff that arcs and twists around the drums whilst the brutally delivered-vocals tear over the surface only to abate and mutate into a harmonised assault when you least expect it. The composition is complex, Earthship employing all manner of light and shade to make sure that this is no one-dimensional trudge straight to hell, the path twisting and turning on its trip to the depths, every so often opening up from the narrow confines of raging guitars and claustrophobic bass to reveal huge vistas represented by mellow guitar lines and a cleverly harmonised vocal approach that recalls Mastadon on ‘Crack the skye’. ‘Athena’ is a clever, complicated track which sees the guitars writhe around the central beat and the vocals a multi-layered endeavour moving from devastating roar to massed harmonies in the blink of an eye. There’s so much going on you’d be hard-pressed to absorb even half of it in a single sitting; the music, as with Neurosis and Mastadon (from whom Earthship most obviously take their cues), so utterly absorbing and involving that by the time you start to appreciate the subtle nuances buried under the superficially impenetrable wall of guitars the band have already moved on to the next track. Third track ‘Iron Chest’ is an early album highlight – as heavy as the titular object and riddled with mystery, the guitars forming a dense battering ram that smashes its way out of the speakers only to settle into the viscous, syrupy groove that dominates the latter half of the song (imagine Converge playing Black Sabbath covers and you’re in the right ball park) and it sounds ominous, intense and strangely beautiful.
After such a deliciously glutinous opening Earthship have much to do to maintain the compelling momentum and yet on ‘boundless void’ they pull off an unexpected manoeuvre, shifting gear and unleashing a stunning riff that sparkles with early-morning sunshine before twitching away unexpectedly at the last moment, the bait having reeled you in, to tread through tremolo-dappled, progressive pastures that have been hitherto unexplored and which only occasionally blaze into furious life, as the tortured riffs collide to form a solid wall of metallic rage, before slipping away once more leaving you wondering from which direction the next attack will come. ‘Eyes in the night’ transpires to be that direction, the track emerging out of the foaming surf as an unstoppable tsunami, the devastating riffs rolling straight over anything in their path, levelling buildings and smashing the senses to pieces before receding back into the burning maelstrom of ‘brimstone’, a similarly brutal piece of work that scythes through the senses on chugging riffs and guttural roars. ‘Catharsis’, as its name suggests, is a moment of soul cleansing and then ‘silver decay’ hypnotises the listener with its mesmerising tempo and oft-blistering riffs. There is magic here, the opening riff of the track a stoner take on Led Zeppelin’s ‘when the levee breaks’ brutally cross bred with Neurosis’ ‘through silver in blood’ to form a piece of music that swells and breaks against the dazzled listener. Penultimate track ‘shattered’ is even slower – edging into deathly doom territory, the slithery vocals serpentine in their delivery and the music equally suggestive of a deadly creature lurking high up in the shadows, nature’s version of the sword of Damocles waiting above you poised and ready to strike out the second you let your guard down. Final track ‘Teal trail’ sees the band chasing an elusive groove, the riffs twisting and turning, always just out of reach, whilst the vocals range between guttural brutality and tormented harmonies somewhere between Dave Mustaine and Ozzy Osbourne in style.
Earthship are a stoner/sludge/doom nightmare. Possessed of a terrifying number of influences, their music is as deep and unfathomable as the ocean; as black as its greatest depths and as difficult to explore. Persevere through the murk, however, and you’ll find a band cut from similar sonic cloth to Mastadon, albeit a rougher-hewn cloth shot through with obsidian threads and tears that obscure and abstract the pattern. Grotesquely heavy and yet, inconceivably, beautiful too, ‘Iron chest’ is an album that should be on the essential list for anyone waiting with baited breath for the forthcoming offering from Neurosis and for anyone else with broad tastes it is well worth exploring too, with its exemplary musicianship, raw-yet-clear production and stunning artwork. ‘Iron chest’ is a brilliant piece of work, and a remarkable second album from a band who terrify and delight in equal measure.