Ruby the Hatchet: Fear is a Cruel Master

Ruby the Hatchet is a deliberate throwback to a different era. Kinda…

As I recall, this era didn’t really exist, not in the way that current retro-nostalgia suggests. Sure, I can pick out many famous and obscure references in a song like Symphony of the Night. But I’m telling you, a piece like this did not exist in 1971, ’72, or even ’75. The instruments and occult themes did, but it was in dribs and drabs. I can think of more than one band that’s made more $$$ and been more popular and widely known during the past 10 years than they were 50 years ago. The resurgence is a today thing.

This brings me to the latest release, Fear is a Cruel Master. Everything is cranked up to 11 on this recording, and it’s a fricking blast!

Opener The Change  pulls off an unexpected 80’s hard-rock vibe. I wasn’t really a fan of this stuff back in the day, but now that I’m getting older, it’s like a breath of fresh air. I was worried that we were getting a pop-album attempt at commercial airplay. But, there’s nothing to worry about: Deceiver reminds you, in no uncertain terms, that this band exists solely to blow you away.

Primitive Man starts out with a naaaasty guitar sound that never lets up. I’ve heard a lot of great, exciting guitar tones this year, but Johnny Scarps steals the whole damn show with this plaintive wail. This is hard rock at its best: bestial and uncompromising.

1000 years could be my favorite song of the year. I can’t tell you why that is because I’m determined not to mention other bands or artists. But for now, it simply has everything I needed at this point in the album, with drummer Owen Stewart harmonizing beautifully with Jillian, followed by a soulful guitar lead that takes us to the rousing, doom-tinged and anthemic climax. Below is a great performance that showcases the band along with some great effects pedals:

Soothsayer opens with one of those bass intros that beckons to another age that might have been, another solid hard-rock masterpiece we haven’t heard in decades. We only think we have…

Last Saga takes us back down all the way to slow dance territory. Just close your eyes and visualize the lighters held above the heads of the crowd. Chill out a bit, and explore some deep thoughts and deeper feelings. Maybe waive your hands in the air, do a fist bump to the beat of the oh-so-heavy outro…

Then we have Thruster, the closest we have to the first few albums. It is the pure joy of being Ruby the Hatchet, and the video is the best, sleaziest, most heartfelt homage to Grindcore I’ve seen in a long, long time. If Quentin Tarantino put together a hard rock band full of references and nods to classic albums, this is the one he’d assemble. And like this album, it would be totally original.

Unfortunately, all good things must end, and closing song Amor Gravis combines everything that makes Ruby the Hatchet, and this album in particular, so damn awesome. Doomy chord progressions, achingly beautiful vocals, and mournful, self-aware lyrics combine for a perfect end to a classic album. The raw power of rock, executed with mastery, is a joy to experience.

The recording and production of the album are also stellar, along with the arrangements. Each member shines when the song calls for it, and they also have the professional discipline to back off and let someone else have the spotlight. Keyboardist Sean Hur is a master of minimalist embellishment as well as flamboyant flourishes. His keyboards never detract or distract, and when it’s time to bring it, he’s amazing.

Drummer and backup vocalist Owen Stweart continues the welcome trend of maximum percussion with the smallest kit possible. Probably because he’s had to load his own gear for years. Regardless, he makes a simple snare/tom/kick with a few cymbals sound massive. I sometimes think lesser percussionists hide behind dozens of drums, most of which they don’t use. In Stewart’s case, all is in clear view as he bashes and crashes, then lays back and lets the guitars and keys drive things forward. The recording, even on my lowly Mp3 files, is open and live-sounding.

I’ve already written about Johnny Scarps’ guitar tone. That’s only part of the story. Look, lead guitar heroes are a dime a dozen. But a dude who can shred AND play rhythm like this is rare, indeed. His versatility is one of the major factors that set Ruby the Hatchet apart from many current bands, even the great ones. Everything he does serves the song, whether it’s a screaming lead or a tasteful strum for Jillian to sing over. His apparent lack of ego or need to dominate is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the album. Giving room for Sean Hur to rock out and even let the bass have a moment or two is awesome.

Of course, as a bassist, the first thing I listen to is the low end of things, and relative newbie Lake Muir serves up a masterclass in groove and tone. He’s as fun to watch as he is to listen to, and he has a smooth, precise right-hand technique that’s usually reserved for pick players. But it’s his tone and the variety of approaches that grab my attention. Original member Mike Parise was an excellent player, in-the-pocket and steady as a rock. But I can’t help by think that Muir’s versatility opens things up musically for the rest of the guys. I know this is getting geeky, but playing bass like this sandwiched between two heavyweights like Johnny and Sean ain’t easy. Most guys I know would stay in the packet, lay low and let the guitars and keys get all the fireworks. But Lake is quickly becoming one of my favorite bassists, and I can’t wait to hear and see what he comes up with next.

Finally, we have Jillian. I don’t know a damn thing about the division of roles in Ruby the Hatchet, but I think it’s a good bet that she has a lot of say in how things go, and what they record. If that’s the case: good. She is one of the most distinctive and intelligent voices in the heavy underground, and she’s about as good as it gets. Frankly, one of the only criticisms I have on the entire recording is a slight overuse of reverb on her vocals, which tends to muffle things just a bit. Jillian Taylor doesn’t need any processing to make her sound good. She has the kind of voice that handles things on its own, and any processing is likely to get in the way. Regardless, my words won’t do her any justice, and she doesn’t need my observations any more than she needs Auto Tune. Just give her a listen, and you’ll hear what I mean. She is simply one of the best performers and vocalists of this or any generation. Fear is a Cruel Master is all you need to verify that for yourself.

One thing I know for certain: almost no one would ever want to follow Ruby the Hatchet live. I don’t care what group you pick from the past 50 years; only a handful would be confident performing after this act. Regardless of how well Fear is a Cruel Master is written, recorded, and produced, the live experience has 10 times the explosiveness and power. I saw them back in August, and I believe most of their setlist was off this album. The whole crowd was so into it, so drawn in, they could have been the headliner. They fucking owned that club that night, and the actual headliners were one of three bands I can think of that could follow that and not be blown off the stage. I have heard bands as good, but I have never heard a band tighter, more perfect or more entertaining than Ruby the Hatchet. I’ve seen a lot of bands. It goes beyond the abilities of Jillian. Every aspect, every performer, and every song is an example of consummate professionalism.

This is a genuinely stadium-worthy band. Ruby the Hatchet has enough pop hooks to dominate the radio, enough authenticity to develop a loyal following, and enough musical prowess to keep this going for a dozen or more albums. They should be performing at 10,000+ venues…

Let’s fucking make that happen. Buy the album, stream the hell out of it and go see ’em live. It’s the least we owe to a band this good.

Photo courtesy of Don Vincent Ortega and Purple SagePR

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