We all have our go-to bands or genres we seek out when in need of a break from the rigorous traits of extreme metal, whether it’s the riff heavy rock of Truckfighters, the spacey psych jams of Mars Red Sky, or the soulful occult doom of Witch Mountain. In recent years I’ve gravitated more and more towards the fuzzy, doomy end of the spectrum when I want to take it down a notch. Enter Philadelphia’s Ruby the Hatchet, yet another band to throw their hat in the “female fronted retro doom rock” ring and attempt to distinguish themselves from the ever growing pack. With an EP and full-length already under their belt, the band returns with sophomore album Valley of the Snake. So how does Ruby the Hatchet stack up in an overcrowded scene?
Valley of the Snake comes equipped with all the usual stylistic traits shared by similarly minded bands. Pleasantly doomy riffs, straightforward drumming, tasteful organ melodies and a competent if unremarkable vocalist, and it delivers lengthy songs on the slightly more up-tempo side of plodding. The ingredients are all there, but the finished product rarely rises above middle-of-the-road status. I wouldn’t describe any of the six songs as boring or completely devoid of interesting riffs or ideas, but unfortunately, the songwriting doesn’t hit the sweet spot often enough and I felt my mind slipping in and out of attention during extended listens.
Cuts like groovy opener “Heavy Blanket” and the heavy psych doom of “Unholy Behemoth” show glimpses of Ruby the Hatchet’s potential. Neither are perfect tunes by any stretch, with the former a tad repetitive and overcooked, while the latter threatens to really cut loose during its second half, but fails to deliver a rousing climax. However, both supply enough strong moments to establish pings of fleeting interest. Meanwhile the catchy stoner groove and scorching leads at the back-end of “Demons,” or the mournful strains of ambitious epic “Tomorrow Never Comes” are for the most part decent tunes. Unfortunately most songs are marred by either minor or more significant blemishes that nullify the stronger points. The drawn out length of the songs (despite a fairly lean 40 minutes run time) and pedestrian moments flatten momentum during otherwise solid tunes, compounding the frustrations of the listener.
I wont deny there are some catchy vocal melodies, fat bluesy riffs and smooth grooves on offer. However, Valley of the Snake falls flat in several areas and doesn’t possess enough hooks or songwriting consistency to sustain interest. Firstly, the staggered flow of quality riffs is at odds with the overly long songs, which don’t deliver enough twists or dynamics to justify their bloated lengths. Furthermore, the drumming lacks punch and can be frustratingly guilty of repetition (see “Heavy Blanket”). And where I usually enjoy the more organic sounding recordings common in this scene and the guitars have a suitably fuzzy heft and the mix is decent, the heavy compression strips away much needed dynamics.
In truth there’s not a hell of a great deal wrong with what Ruby the Hatchet have crafted here. My issue with Valley of the Snake mainly boils down to the lack of edginess and originality in their sound. Originality might seem a moot point for this retro style, but even music exploring such a well-worn craft needs to jink off the beaten path every now and again and bring something vaguely fresh and invigorating to the equation. Valley of the Snake is a pleasurable enough album with a handful of cool moments but ultimately plays it too safe to compete with the finer exponents of retro minded doom rock.