As one of the most exciting and vital artists currently operating in what would ordinarily be deemed as “heavy” music, Emma Ruth Rundle has consistently delivered albums, projects and collaborations that not only tug at the emotions, but that also rattle the inner ear with volume and distortion. Of course volume and distortion are not the only ways to bring the heavy, and with her latest album, Rundle has stripped everything back as far as possible. On these songs, she’s accompanied only by piano, guitar, and occasionally some delicate strings. Additionally, the songs were recorded as live, so the result is an album that feels like an incredibly intimate solo gig.
Essentially, Engine Of Hell is Emma Ruth Rundle’s way of gently relating the struggles of the last few years to her audience on an individual basis. The way the album is recorded, it’s possible to hear her fingers sliding on the guitar strings, the slightly missed notes, the occasional fuck up, her breathing between lines. It goes beyond the intimacy of a small gig, it’s as if she’s whispering it into your ear whilst she’s falling apart, crying on your shoulder. So whilst Engine Of Hell might not be the album that fans of her more thunderous efforts were hoping for, it is, without any question, her heaviest album to date.
Return opens the album and sets out the bewildering, uncharted path that Rundle is stumbling along with anyone that’ll take her hand and join her. Being, lost together is never exactly being lost, and taking this esoteric journey in Rundle’s company is like wandering in the dark, trying to find your way to a destination that might not even exist. In a sense, we are the Dante, to Rundle’s Virgil as we are led through hell, but we’re never entirely sure if our souls will ever make it as far as God.
These songs never really offer a focus, a resolution, or a conclusion. A lot of the time they feel like an endless grieving process, where there’s an impossible claustrophobia, no apparent answer, and no way of accurately expressing the feelings that are boiling away inside. So whilst many of these songs hint at Rundle’s inner turmoil, and it’s entirely palpable in her delivery, pinning down what’s at the heart of these heart wrenching songs is difficult.
There are glimpses, and deft lyrical touches that offer hints as to where these songs are coming from. Winter never ends in Razor’s Edge, breathing and breathlessness suggest uncomfortable pauses and lack of air, there are occasional religious references (most notably on Blooms Of Oblivion) and glints of positivity amongst the gloom too such as on Dancing Man when she whispers “the orphans can smile for an afternoon”. The only time Rundle gets close to a lyric that isn’t wrapped in mystery is on Body, one of the most heartbreaking songs on the album, where she remembers seeing a dead relative being wheeled away. It would take a hard heart not to choke up a little when Rundle utters the words “you said your arms were always around me”. The slightly clumsy piano line complete with apparently bummed notes gives the impression that she’s performing the song in a moment of barely controlled grief. It’s one of the most affecting moments on an album crammed with them.
Engine Of Hell is not an easy listen, in fact, it can feel quite daunting to immerse yourself in because it can leave you emotionally drained by the end. On first listen, it seems unfocused, rambling and at times impenetrable, but given time, it unfurls into something utterly compelling and all encompassing. For an album so sparse in its instrumentation, there’s a daunting amount of depth here, and despite the darkness that seems to shroud many of these songs, Rundle’s presence always provides some light in the dark. It’s fitting, and presumably not a coincidence that having explored the depths of hell, personal and otherwise for much of the album, the final words of closing track In My Afterlife are “now we’re free”. As the album fades out, it does feel as if a weight has lifted, an experience has been shared, and that somehow, out of all the confusion, things make some kind of sense again. It’s a difficult and traumatic journey at times, but it is worth taking.