If right now has a sound somewhere within heavy or heavy psychedelic rock, it probably isn’t far off from what Philadelphia’s Ruby the Hatchet conjure on their second full-length, Valley of the Snake. Released through Tee Pee Records with jaw-droppingly righteous Adam Burke cover art, it is a vinyl-tailored 40 minutes that looks back to ’70s acid rock stylistically via a few choice modern influences, and is crisp, clear and melodic while still offering a satisfying if deceptive sonic heft. Highly-stylized but substantial beyond that, its six cuts speak to the growth of a quality songwriting process, and where 2012’s Ouroboros cut its teeth in shorter bursts of boogie and more upbeat swing, Valley of the Snake melts down those impulses into a molten overarching groove that plays out through longer, more complex tracks. Vocalist Jillian Taylor, guitarist John Scarperia, bassist Mike Parise, drummer Owen Stewart and organist Sean Hur thus craft an exceptionally fluid overarching sense of vibe within which the individual pieces of Valley of the Snake play out. One can hear the impact in recent years of bands like Witch Mountain, whose dirty blues seem to have a presence in side B opener “Unholy Behemoth,” and Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, whose garage-rock style is writ large over the album’s production and to whom “Vast Acid” seems to directly refer in both its riff and in a lyrical nod to that band’s most infectious hook, “I’ll Cut You Down.” With atmospheres intensified and fleshed out by Hur‘s organ and sundry echoes on the guitar and vocals, Ruby the Hatchet nonetheless bring an air of individuality and craft a niche for themselves within these familiar elements.
Between “Vast Acid” and the preceding opener “Heavy Blanket,” the album’s most immediate impression is one of stomp and swing. “Heavy Blanket” in particular brings to mind the nodding clarion “Seer” that launched Witch‘s landmark self-titled debut in 2006, but Taylor‘s vocal layering and the organ present a different context. It’s an immediately fluid groove, opening wide after a 16-second fade-in, and the roll that ensues is as welcoming an introduction as one might ask of Ruby the Hatchet, who make a turn around the halfway point to a more instrumentally focused second half built on vibe and culminating in a twisting finish and sustained organ note that drops out just so the quick start of “Vast Acid” can seem to hit harder. Scarperia‘s guitar seems to be leading the way, a solo is layered on top of organ and bass and plays out intertwining with the central riff, but Taylor is a formidable presence throughout Valley of the Snake, and ultimately there’s a balance found between them, Hur, Stewart and Parise, resulting in warm tones that never step too far out of the mix. “Tomorrow Never Comes,” which follows, begins with poignant acoustic guitar and unfolds from there to a coherent high point of the album, with fluid tempo shifts and a feel somewhere between more traditional doom and Ruby the Hatchet‘s already established commanding rhythmic movement. At 8:49, it is the longest inclusion on Valley of the Snake, but it uses its time well, pushing through a speedier middle before slowing back down and ultimately finding a swirling space between the two sides as it builds to its apex and finishes out with just enough feedback to remind the listener of the danger behind and ahead.
Symmetry and structure play a large role throughout Valley of the Snake, both within the songs and in how the record is put together. On side A, two five-minute songs lead to the longer “Tomorrow Never Comes.” Side B mirrors this with the six-minute “Unholy Behemoth” and “Demons” pushing toward the finale of the title-track. The change is more aesthetic. “Unholy Behemoth” is riffier, more insistent, and pulls back from the intangible melody of the organ on “Heavy Blanket” and “Vast Acid” to feature a somewhat darker take. Taylor carries the verses easily in slower pace, but “Unholy Behemoth” picks up in its second half to a more familiar boogie, leading to the grainy ’70s bikerisms of “Demons,” which signals its tension through Stewart‘s hi-hat early and cuts back as it approaches the halfway point to establish a back and forth of pace that plays out again on a smaller scale, capping with a slowed-down deconstruction, the undercurrent of keys winding up the last remaining element of prominence along with some amplifier hum. That leaves only “Valley of the Snake” remaining, and the seven-minute closer is the highlight of the record that bears its name. Like “Tomorrow Never Comes,” it starts with a foundation of acoustic guitar, but stylistically it’s a departure from just about everything else on the album, unfolding with a grace that speaks more to Fleetwood Mac than Uncle Acid, further progressive sensibilities showing up in the full-weight apex — is that a line of flute? — that follows the hypnotic earlier pastoralisms. I’m not sure a complete album in that style would work, but “Valley of the Snake” speaks more to the potential of Ruby the Hatchet than anything before it in balancing heavy acid rock and unashamed pop grandiosity. They finish big, as they’d almost have to, and end their second album with a debut’s hopefulness for what future risk-taking might bring. Whether or not “Valley of the Snake” becomes a model in style or method will have to remain to be seen, but the closer demonstrates plainly the band’s potential and just what it is they might bring to the sphere of heavy psychedelia going forward. Some will cling to the catchy familiarity of the first couple tracks, and I won’t argue against that, but to hear what Ruby the Hatchet really have working for them, one might find it worth the effort to dig a little deeper.