Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine of Hell Review

Getting out of your comfort zone is healthy. It opens your mind to new experiences and breaks down the walls of the overly familiar. This is just one reason why Angry Metal Guy sometimes discusses interesting non-metal albums. Still, there should at least be some connection — either via style or personnel — to our raison d’être. Emma Ruth Rundle has plenty, from her time in the post scene with Red Sparowes and Marriages to her collaborations with sludge royalty Thou. Her solo work is nothing to sneeze at either, with 2018’s On Dark Horses a particular favorite of mine. The full band that has accompanied Ms. Rundle in recent years has been dismissed for Engine of Hell, however. How does she fare on her own?

Ms. Rundle’s solo work has always been deeply intimate, but it may as well have been arena rock when compared to Engine of Hell. Most of the songs were recorded live, Ms. Rundle’s voice accompanied only by acoustic guitar, piano, or violin. It is music stripped down to its bare minimum, leaving nothing to hide behind, and every detail and imperfection is lit up by the stark glare of the spotlight. Though the word “raw” in our neck of the woods often means harsh and lo-fi, there is no better word for this album, frayed nerve endings laid bare by nothing but a voice and an instrument or two. The production polishes away absolutely nothing either; every creaking chord change, every clicking pickup, every breath, even the parting of her lips is recorded with unflinching clarity.

It’s little surprise, then, that imperfection is part of the point as well as the appeal of the album. It certainly suits Ms. Rundle’s vocal characteristics. Much like figures such as Patrick Walker or Agnete Kierkegaard, she has sufficient but not extraordinary technical skills. Yet she excels at emotional projection, doubled in strength by the personal subject matter, even as the lyrics are frequently shrouded in evocative metaphors. Some of these are biblical, such as the seductive worship of the failures of Judas on “Blooms of Oblivion,” but many are ripped directly from her own experiences, like watching the body of a family member being wheeled away. She frequently uses interesting contrasts between music and lyrics, too; mind the fond reminiscence of “Dancing Man,” even as it is rendered with tense, soft piano and sung on the edge of a whisper. This is followed by the gorgeous, casual self-destruction in “Razor’s Edge,” played entirely using creaky chords in major key that somehow feel more naked and honest than anything I’ve heard this year.

It’s a brave approach that few could pull off without it sounding forced and hokey. But its very concept also limits Engine of Hell. By the time the last notes of “In My Afterlife” fade away, I’ve spent 41 minutes in breathless tension, sitting through eight tracks that are confrontational in a rare way, but it does leave me craving some catharsis. “Blooms of Oblivion” approaches it without breaching, but otherwise every track begins, ends and remains small and intimate throughout. This is a style choice that’s going to hit everyone differently, as I’m sure is the point; for me, it instills a feeling that an act is missing from the play. Perhaps Ms. Rundle’s previous work has instilled too much of a particular expectation in me, considering her ability to make gloomy compositions unfurl is a big part of what I like about her most.

Regardless of which side of the line you fall on regarding this issue, Engine of Hell is a rare treat, an experience so intimate you can close your eyes and imagine the artist is right there in the room with you, and so personal and devastating it will occupy your thoughts for days. It’s not the sort of thrill ride we usually deal in on this here blog, but you’d do well to leave the comfort zone of outlandish sonic violence and step into the world of Emma Ruth Rundle. Few are able to bare their very soul as she can, and fewer still do it this well.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 10 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Sargent House
Websites: emmaruthrundle.bandcamp.com | emmaruthrundle.com | facebook.com/emmaruthrundle
Releases Worldwide: November 5th, 2021

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