Heavy metal, trad metal, throwback metal, vest metal, or whatever you want to call it (along with the peripheral genres of proto-doom, psych rock, and occult rock), have experienced something of a boom this side of the millennium. With big time acts like The Sword, Ghost, Black Mountain, and (to a lesser degree) Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats and The Devil’s Blood; there’s no denying that some (good) things never go out of style, and that the sacred hallows consecrated by Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Judas Priest will forever be cherished. It’s a beautiful thing, really, that this “roots” appreciation exists. It’s tied to metal’s relative youth; you’d be hard-pressed to find fans of modern pop digging back to Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly because, damn, that was such a long time ago and things have evolved so far from that style, it’s hard to imagine that they’re even of the same world. Similarly, the only artists peddling Elvis-style jams these days are probably doing it in costume at a casino. It appears that in this specific neighborhood of metal, though, that bands are trying to capture the same vibes, aesthetic, and charm of their ancestors, to achieve a sort of authenticity, to possibly be placed along the same shelf as their legends. Or, maybe they’re just having fun writing kickass tunes in hopes that someone relates to them as they did to their heroes.
But so often with these vintage-sounding acts, the novelty of their sleight-of-hand time travelling outshines the execution of their album. Even as a fan of so many albums in these styles, it’s hard to deny that there’s few truly great, transcendent albums. Is this a side-effect of nostalgia, or a “they did it first, so…” mentality? Probably… but how many people do you know hold Age of Winters in higher esteem than Master of Reality? Who would choose Opus Eponymous over Machine Head as a desert island listen? Granted, future generations may choose not pay their dues with history lessons (Born of Osiris immediately come to mind), but there seems to be enough of these old-sounding bands around that making a leap back 40-plus years doesn’t feel drastic, and that the classics will never die.
All this talk about authenticity and greatness can’t be for naught. To put it plainly, Ruby the Hatchet’s second full-length offering, Planetary Space Child, reeks of 70s goodness. You can smell the High Life on its breath, the stale weed in its hair, and the sensual mingling of Marlboro funk and stage fog. Presented in a vivid production, there’s a beaming, powerful energy present despite the record’s low-to-mid tempo range. Title track opener rolls an eerie, culty haunt into a furious psyched-out jam with an intentionally improvised feel (hell, maybe it was), as if they know this 6.5-minute track is truly destined for a 12-plus-minute runtime live. Hints of this come up again and again over the course of the album, and after repeat listens, the effortlessness of their transitions and jams encourage a listener’s curiosity and imagination, a mythos of something greater looming beyond the confines of this record.
Planetary Space Child isn’t a statement of virtuosity and aural dick-measuring – though, you’d be hard-pressed to be disappointed in any of the performances. Jillian Taylor’s vocal agility makes her an obvious, and well-deserved, focal point. She glides around with dramatic swoons and a glassy timbre, simultaneously delicate, powerful, vulnerable, and intense. She’s powerful, but doesn’t domineer or become singular in her approach. Her versatility gives her effectiveness across the various facets of the band’s sound: hard-charging blues rock (“Gemini”), driving rock ‘n’ roll (“Killer”), hazy doom (“Symphony of the Night”), and (pun intended) spacey romps (“The Fool”, “Lightning Comes Again”).
Along these lines and across these styles, they enchant and tease with good old-fashioned, quality songwriting. Not to say there isn’t a fair share of tasty solos and wild jams, but everything is just so fucking tasteful and wonderfully executed. Johnny Scarps (guitar) is an Iommi-an figure who approaches solos with a similar economy. There’s an abundance of instrumental interplay between guitar, organ, vocals, and bass, basically foregoing primitive structures, but still never getting too off-the-wall or long-winded on their proggy expeditions. Things like the trade-off segment about halfway through “Killer”, or the extended Sabbathian bridge in “Pagan Ritual” encapsulate both a fluidity and flexibility in their nebulous style of play.
It’s a densely-composed but never a complicated or overwhelming album. It’s efficient in that it’s replete with action and thick without becoming confusing or contrived as prog/psych often can. Organist Sean Hur keeps things busy by keeping to the forefront of the sound, filling voids with fiery licks and beefing up riffs, and in turn giving Scarps plenty of opportunities to take his guitar for a walk or reinforce a groove – of which there are many. Rhythmically, Lake Muir (bass) and Owen Stewart (drums) keep things clockwork and make much of the album sound easy. Transitions breeze by as they shift gears from smooth, gliding grooves to the monstrously heavy eruptions, their gravity pulling in partners to carry along with them while someone swings out of orbit on a solo. This being said, there’s It’s weird to yammer on the merits of restraint and efficiency (and things that aren’t really ON the album), but there’s something to be said about saving a lil’ sumpin’ for later. Planetary Space Child isn’t as an immediate or raucous listen, but it is more focused and has more personality than its predecessor, Valley of the Snake.
There’s something really rejuvenating about Planetary Space Child and how it instills a sense of wonder. It does things so familiar and breathes new life into them. It plays by the old rules, but is still full of surprises. It’s familiar, but new and exciting. It’s engaging and dense, but not hard to approach. It’s restrained, but not handcuffed. It’s less, and somehow more. Still, for those of us who blindly and eternally revere the forefathers of the genre, Ruby the Hatchet will never reach the elite upper echelons of heavy metal. But for those who could care less, Planetary Space Child is a sweaty polyester shirt, not a time-tested battle vest – a phenomenal record that will earn many listens, and likely something people will wear out and have to buy again.
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Planetary Space Child is available on Earth now courtesy of Tee Pee Records.