Fervent reader Strawman McDuke is outraged. “A singer-songwriter tag,” he sputters. “On a TYMHM article? On my beloved AMG?! It’s an outrage!”1 Well, McDuke may say that, but first I should mention her involvement with post-rock/metal outfit Red Sparowes, but more importantly, mention her kindred spirit Chelsea Wolfe. Like Chelsea’s older work, Emma Ruth Rundle uses structures from folk and singer-songwriter music with a post-rock filling to create something beautiful, interminably dark, and as fragile as a frozen bubble. But while Chelsea has since fully embraced grand industrodoom metal, Emma‘s music has remained small, intimate, and deeply personal on her 2018 release On Dark Horses. So call it “special interest” if you will. My point stands that despite its calm approach, this is a heavy album, but on the heart rather than the ears, and an experience any fan of deep and dark music can appreciate.
One thing has changed from her previous release Marked For Death, though. By mixing more post-rock elements into her music, it is undeniably heavier than before. This is notable from the start, but reaches an early peak on “Control,” with its storm-blown chorus of densely layered guitars crashing around Emma’s desperate vocals. The sensation of waves breaking is prevalent across the album, particularly on “Light Song” which features the sonorous vocals of Evan Patterson (Jaye Jayle). Guitars and cymbals crash, linger, and retreat, making room for the next squall to hit. The music is soaked in reverb, the deliberately-paced drums welling up from the deep, every plucked note dying out slowly, languid. Melancholy soaks the soul, tales of depression and loss made bittersweet by a ray of defiance barely breaking through the clouds, shining forth from Emma’s spellbinding voice.
It’s that voice that binds the album together and makes it truly stand out as the beautiful, forlorn piece it is. Emma claims Kate Bush as a primary influence, and it can be heard in her breath control, sometimes coming close to a whisper, the next moment crying out with a frail despair breaking through. But her greatest strength is how even big moments are delivered small, phrases returning to a morose and sultry enunciation that makes you feel as though she is sitting next to you, sketching her poetry through intimate phrases meant only for you. As even the sparse moments of vocal grandeur return to this setting, they serve merely to pick you up and carry you on waves that would sound seductive if the undercurrent was not so dark and lonely.
I had the pleasure of seeing Emma Ruth Rundle perform at Roadburn 2016. At a festival where walls of sound are commonplace, this frail-looking woman used little besides her guitar and voice to silence a room of 700 drunk metalheads. Though the scope of her music expands further with On Dark Horses, she demonstrates with despondent grace that this powerful, gripping effect is fully intact. It is sonically heavier than before, but never relinquishes its intimacy, the feeling that for its duration Emma grants a window into the deepest crevices of her soul. The result is quietly spectacular and deeply affecting, and it invites to revisit that smoldering connection time and time again. On Dark Horses is heartbreaking perfection.
Tracks to Check Out: “Control,” “Light Song,” “You Don’t Have to Cry”