Contrary to recent patterns, there is a right way to make throwback rock work. Bands like Greta Van Fleet might see the majority of their traction thanks to wholesale recreations of past acts to get nostalgia glands running on overdrive and very little else, but it’s when the sounds of the past can be taken and recontextualised that sees them work the most. Queens Of The Stone Age might be a great band for how experimental and fearless they are while still operating in a mainstream space, but that mainstream acceptance can generally be attributed to being anchored in recognisable classic rock and old-school stoner-rock touchstones that can be built on and rearranged to their wont. Thus, with a band like Sky Valley Mistress who’ve been making ripples within stoner-rock and hard rock scenes for years thanks to providing timely updates of those particular sounds without losing the fundamentals of either, that immediately sets a precedent for quality that so many retro-rock bands are unable to create. Regardless of the final product, the assurance that Faithless Rituals is going to be more than a shameless rehash serves as a rather weighty buffer from the off, and that’s useful to have for a debut that’s been such a long time coming.
It’s also handy when, if this was just another throwback album going through same motions as all the rest, Faithless Rituals probably wouldn’t be viewed quite as warmly. Even now, it’s difficult to call this wholly great as Sky Valley Mistress’ particular brand of stoner-rock could do with a bit of refinement and resource management, but at least putting forward those more diverse ideas yields an album that can keep a decent drive forward. There’s certainly unevenness, but the breadth of vision can buffer quite a bit, and when at a fundamental level Sky Valley Mistress have an impressively tight grip on what they’re going for, Faithless Rituals can give the pretty convincing impression that its debut album wobbliness isn’t permanent.
That’s because, for as counterintuitive to everything previously said about not falling back on classic tropes as it might sound, Sky Valley Mistress have the makings of a truly excellent straight-up rock band about them. It’s actually rather apt that this album comes from linking up with Queens Of The Stone Age and Eagles Of Death Metal’s Dave Catching on production, as it’s steeped in the same sort of recognisably retro fare that has just the right amount of modern polishing to not feel like it’s using its influences as a crutch. To be frank, Sky Valley Mistress don’t have the experimental mentality of QOTSA, nor do they have the lighter, more parodic nature of EODM (though that’s probably for the best), but as a more contemporary take on this sound that stays relatively true to its roots without being too tired, Faithless Rituals can deliver some pretty effective moments. At their best, Sky Valley Mistress show their proficiency at carving out sizzling, granite-heavy grooves that infuse more dexterous basslines for some real kinetic motion on Punk Song, or the smokier barroom swing of It Won’t Stop that shows the smoother, more seductive range of Kayley Davies’ vocals extremely well. It’s where the classic rock sensibilities feel their most realised, pulling from the same pool as the scene’s heavier acts like Kylesa or Kyuss, but funnelling them into a more direct form. It’s why, for as pretty by-the-numbers in writing as love of rock ‘n’ roll through the eyes of a leather jacket on Skull & Pistons and the tale of a hell-raising succubus on She Is So are, they’ve got the fire that tends to be missing from more shameless pastiches, especially in instrumentation that has actually heft and gusto to it.
But for as many individual pieces as Sky Valley Mistress have nailed down, they’ve not quite reached a point where assembling them is as consistently strong. It doesn’t help when tipping volume and pace can make a fair number of these songs feel more fragmented than they should (especially when they aren’t overly long to begin with for the most part), but when that’s paired with a surprising lack of killer hooks that tends to be a must for hard rock like this, it makes for an album that has a decent sense of rollick and rumble, but struggles to elevate it to significant heights. Even away from the eleven minutes of Blue Desert that meanders through its runtime in a way that only exacerbates the main issues this album has, there’s a rather distinct hint of overextension that’s beyond Sky Valley Mistress’ limits at this stage. The experimentation they try just isn’t all that compelling, and the potential to make it so just doesn’t feel as strong as what they can achieve as a great hard rock band with a slightly heavier touch. Doubling down on that could have made Faithless Rituals great, instead of being solid without doing more with it.
Still though, the fact that Sky Valley Mistress are excelling with those pieces to the extent that they are bodes well for the future, especially if the best parts of what they’ve got to offer here can be refined into something more comprehensive. There’s definitely the feeling of Faithless Rituals being the sort of debut serving as a litmus test for the band to get their bearings and find out what works for them, and despite how uneven the end results are, it’s hard to judge a band too harshly for putting themselves out there to extent that Sky Valley Mistress do. Even if it’s not always as good as it could be, the attempts are worth the praise if nothing else, and in isolated pieces, there’s the potential for something great not that far down the line that’s perfectly apparent already. This isn’t the definitive evidence of what Sky Valley Mistress are capable of, but the glimpses of what that is mean it’s worth paying attention regardless.
For fans of: Queens Of The Stone Age, Baroness, Kylesa
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Faithless Rituals’ by Sky Valley Mistress is released on 20th March on New Heavy Sounds.