Berlin-based prog/sludgers Earthship are the brainchild of drummer Jan Oberg – the former skinsman of critically-acclaimed progressive metal collective The Ocean, here flexing his songwriting and multi-instrumentalist muscles by serving as guitarist and vocalist. On the band’s first record, 2010′s Exit Eden, Jan was joined by fellow The Ocean member, guitarist Robin Staps – owner of German-based Pelagic Records, a label who have quickly made something of a name for themselves by releasing consistently high-quality albums of forward-thinking progressive metal and post-rock. While Staps may no longer be present in the band’s lineup – the band having evolved into a power trio of guitarist/vocalist Jan Oberg, drummer Dennis Boettcher and bassist Sabine Oberg (Jan’s wife) – Earthship‘s second release on Pelagic Records, Iron Chest, stands proudly alongside the releases of its labelmates by delivering a concise, compact 33-minute package of swaggering, lead-heavy sludge riffage tinged with doses of bluesy, Southern-fried groove and tasteful dashes of progressive technicality.
From the opening moments of first track ‘Old Widow’s Gloom’, the first thing that strikes you about Iron Chest is the sheer weight of the music being hurled your way. Mr. and Mrs. Oberg’s riffs swarm from the speakers clothed in a warm, clear, and foundation-shakingly heavy production, hammered home with devastating effect by Boettcher’s thunderous tub-thumping. That sense of heft is further enhanced by Jan Oberg’s sandpaper-scoured roaring, his gravelly exhortations wringing further menace from the down-tuned, sludgey bludgeon of his riffs. However, while Iron Chest certainly has chest-rattling density in spades (see, for example, the brusing, slow-motion beating that is the closing minute of ‘Brimstone’), as the album progresses, it becomes clear that Earthship have more up their sleeves than just the ability to cave in skulls.
While the band’s underpinnings clearly reside in Mastodon/Baroness territory, there’s a subtle technicality and diversity in the songwriting which serves to both leaven and work in harmonious concert with the balls-out groove and stomp on display. See the album’s title track (and one of its undisputable highlights), for instance, which sees Earthship spending the first three minutes of the song effortlessly navigating some of the album’s fiddliest, time-signature skipping riffage before introducing a riff which Down would have loved to have penned for their latest EP – and a riff which reappears, bolstered by hand-claps and tambourine shakes, in a climactic build-up that is sure to inspire live audiences to get enthusiastically and convivially violent. See also ‘Boundless’, which alternates between post-rock-esque combinations of chiming clean arpeggios, upper-register, delayed trem-picked leads and a gut-rumbling bass groove and more straightforwardly sludgey powerchord avalanches, blending a distinctly spacey vibe with earthier, more destructive tones.
The real triumph of Iron Chest lies in its accessibility to a surprisingly broad range of metallic tastes. Fans of down-tuned, aggressive, weighty bluster will be well-served by Earthship‘s unswervingly effective deployment of swaggering, bluesy, elephantine riffs, while fans of more progressive material will be able to appreciate the ostentation-free, subtle intricacy of the band’s songwriting. It’s a surprisingly intellectual bruiser of an album, packing as much heat in its head as it does in its fists, and one that will surely find a welcome place in the CD collections of fans of Mastodon, Baroness, Down and The Ocean alike.