It’s been a productive past few years for Emma Ruth Rundle. Her 2018 album On Dark Horses captured a lot of attention from many circles and her 2020 collaboration with Thou, May Our Chambers Be Full, offered a work even greater than the sum of its parts.
As the decade shifted and the pandemic hit, Emma shifted gears and promised a sparse, minimal album that veers away from the sonic wars of her recent work. And she has delivered exactly that – this new album features her voice, piano, guitar and little else beyond a guest vocal and cello.
Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine Of Hell
Released November 5, 2021 via Sargent House Records
My Favorite Tracks – The Company, Return, Razor’s Edge
I could waste words on questioning if this stylistic turn is a risk or not, but there’s no need to ponder the question. While Engine Of Hell is a shift it’s certainly not a departure. Emma’s 2016 effort Marked For Death bears some similarities to this new album, with moments that are sparse and harrowing. This album might forego the effects pedals and sonic range but it fits well within the body of work Emma has already created.
This album is apparently a very intense therapy session for Emma, as she has discussed how she is processing traumatic events of her past through these songs. She adds layers to the lyrics so that the bare meaning is concealed. And that’s the point of art, of course – it doesn’t do much for anyone to just grab a guitar and bitch about how things suck. It’s the shaping and twisting of form and the resulting work that gets attention. It’s also what allows the listener to find their own meanings to the songs.
On a record where minimalism is the theme, every word sang and note played becomes important. Emma’s delivery on this record is very deliberate and methodical – each chord strummed or piano key hit seems to be there for a reason. Album opener and lead single Return showcases this deliberate form of arrangement, it seems that every note is there for a purpose. It’s a realm away from finding a decent hook or melody and then shoehorning words that sound nice on top of it.
Engine Of Hell differs from Emma’s past work in that there is no hope or triumph to be found here. The music may be gentle but the subject matter is heavier than death metal. The happy ending is either down the road or not to be found. This album isn’t for the faint of heart.
With any music, and especially a record like this that’s extremely personal yet wrapped in enough layers to keep the true meaning hidden, the listener will find their own meanings and draw their own conclusions. In my own listening, I can say that The Company and Return are the songs that hold the highest order of meaning to me. The rest of the album offers bits and pieces that resonate, but the album as a whole is a very enjoyable listen even without having some personally identifying connection with a lot of it.
Engine Of Hell is not a casual listening experience with a hit single or a feel-good vibe. It is an album to be consumed whole – and one that might consume the listener whole, depending on one’s strength of spirit. It is a beautiful, haunting piece of art from one of the best musical artists in circulation today.