For this week’s pick I’m revisiting someone who has become my favorite artist in recent memory. She has released a wide selection of music across several projects over the past 15 years and has not been shy to explore new styles and soundscapes. Today I will be looking at her third solo album, which kicked off a sound that ran through a few records and has provided some of her most harrowing and memorable work.
Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked For Death
Released September 30, 2016 via Sargent House Records
My Favorite Tracks – Real Big Sky, Protection, Marked For Death
The record features minor-key, atmospheric passages along with at times harsh, cutting distortion that breaks through and highlights the darkness of the album’s themes. Unconventional guitars and tunings create a sound not found in many other places, if anywhere. The combination of atmosphere, noise and dark subject matter create a unique and awe-inspiring listening experience.
Marked For Death
The opener and title track establishes a tale of two lovers bound in a fatalistic way. It is not a Cinderella story, or if it is it’s one where everyone turns to ash at midnight. The song is mostly quiet and rolling, with the guitar ringing out during the chorus. It’s a song that works well both plugged in and stripped down, as the performance at the end of this post illustrates.
The noise gets turned up on the second song as Emma explores a tryst that is, well, extremely heavy. It is hard to tell on the surface if the lyrics indicate a truly transcendent love experience or if it shades at something much darker. A betting person would likely go with the latter when considering Emma’s work as a whole. The guitars go absolutely off in a noisy chorus of their own, and even in the quieter verses Emma lends a great deal of power to her vocal delivery.
A more gentle tune that showcases the atmospheric side of Emma’s recording. The song recounts difficult dealings with someone wrapped in the symbology of the mythical Medusa. It’s one of several songs that employ a rolling and marching feel that Emma has put to great use on several albums.
Hand Of God
This song keeps things mostly quiet and is a very haunting account of someone who has fallen from grace. While Emma has often used the contrast between harsh and gentle music, here it is a contrast between a nice, mild song and very, very harrowing lyrical matter.
Another very gentle song that also tackles matter similar to Hand Of God. This song doesn’t “feel” as desperate as the prior one, though. There is an acceptance of the loss of Heaven here and the constraints of mortality. A bit of noise builds up in a beautiful ending that apparently sees Heaven burning.
A song that offers some allusions to traumatic events and implores the saints to come, if indeed they are supposed to. So, Come begins quietly then builds into some powerful distorted passages while Emma still seems to maintain an almost upbeat plea to these saints. “Suffer so that we may live” is invoked, but it’s not clear who is supposed to do the suffering or the living.
This gorgeous song lays an atmospheric tone that almost conceals its very heavy vocals about what seems to be the end of the relationship Emma has outlined in other songs here. With the end of said relationship, Emma is caught in the rage of a furious angel, as the all-consuming nature of the relationship is all there was. The music recalls some of Emma’s shoegaze/dreampop past and uses these layered elements wonderfully.
Real Big Sky
The album’s closer strips away the layers and sonic elements to present only Emma’s voice and a distorted guitar. Other songs on the album provide sonic hiding spots from the haunting themes but Real Big Sky offers no such respite.
The song offers up a subject person who is apparently at the end of their life. The verses outline the person’s plight while the chorus hears the person sing what could be their final words. The somber, stripped-down presentation only amplifies the deep sadness found here. But there is also hope in transcendence to also be found in the ultimate journey away from mortality. The song offers a prelude of sorts to Emma’s more minimalist work on her 2021 effort Engine Of Hell, which also provides no place to escape from the inevitability of the subjects at hand.
Marked For Death is an album both beautiful and scary – it provides a variety of well-executed musical passages with which to digest the very dark themes on offer. Emma relayed in this 2016 feature with The Independent that she recorded the album after a dark period in her life and still grappled with the themes even after the album’s completion.
The album marked a period of transition in Emma’s personal life and also in her recording career. Marked For Death offered up some of the same “sonic warfare” that would be on display for her next album, 2018’s On Dark Horses. I have previously covered that album and hold it in the highest of esteem. But this album stands alongside that as a master work of music that plunges to the depths of existence and pulls out something otherworldly. While she is crafting music from a place of pain and trauma, Emma has provided a series of songs that offer an amazing listening experience.