Ambient artist Emma Ruth Rundle is perhaps best known as the lead singer of Marriages, but she further experiments with her sideline role in post-rockers Red Sparowes and her lead role in dreamy folk band Nocturnes.
All of these influences are on top display in Rundle’s new solo album Some Heavy Ocean, an amalgam of drone, folk and goth. The results are decidedly strong, even if at times it seems like Rundle simply took her previous ambient drone releases and combined them with her usual vocal takes in Nocturnes and Marriages. Mostly, Some Heavy Ocean is captivating and confident.
Overall, while it’s easy to hear Rundle’s influences and contemporaries – namely Chelsea Wolfe and Marissa Nadler– in her music, songs like Shadows Of My Name and Arms I Know So Well establish her as a singular voice. The former’s repeatedly arpeggiated acoustic guitar greatly complement the uplift of the song’s chorus, during which Rundle supplies us with the best Björk impersonation outside of Kristen Wiig.
The latter is perhaps the most impressive song on the album. Rundle’s acoustic, scratchy strumming and chantey guitar melody coupled with her voice and folk-tale delivery greatly contrast the intensely personal subject matter of the song. “Deliver me from all the evil I did to myself,” Rundle sings, following it up with “And deliver me to arms so open, arms I know so well.” What Rundle is exactly talking about and to whom she’s talking is largely irrelevant. The complexity of Arms I Know So Well comes from Rundle’s sense of perspective: even wise sailors who know how to navigate life can be self-destructive.
Moreover, while naysayers may listen to Some Heavy Ocean and play “spot the influence”, as much as a pastiche of alternative music Some Heavy Ocean sometimes is, it’s unique in its accessibility. For one, it’s everything the film Black Snake Moan was trying to be (sexy and provocative), but way better. Closer Living With The Black Dog references Southern lords, whores, and slaves and avoids fetishization through its authentically sludgy riffs.
In addition, fourth track Run Forever chugs along with an acoustic riff, steady Southern gothic beat, and hooky chorus that might have landed it on alternative radio in the ’90s had the stars aligned. Rundle’s delivery is clear and emotive but not overly dramatic, the perfect balance between catharsis and reason. When she sings, “If we both get caught, then we’ll run forever / if we both go down, we go down together,” forget the Bruce Springsteen-esque naivety; Rundle knows this love isn’t going to end well, so she’s just covering her bases.
Elsewhere, lyrically, Rundle channels folk singers like Emmylou Harris (an admitted influence). On a track like Haunted House, her traditionally folky delivery is clouded in musical haze. The track could almost be a companion piece to Nadler’s excellent Dead City Emily; both are similarly evocative and chilly, and in both tracks, songwriters feel stuck and trapped in spatial entities.
It’s this feeling of being trapped that runs throughout Some Heavy Ocean. There are references both direct and indirect to the five classical elements of earth, fire, water, wind, and void, the last further exemplified by the feeling of emptiness Rundle’s music has the potential to evoke. Specifically, references to oceans and waves and water are not meant to praise the freedom of the high seas, but lament the potential for drowning, for becoming encapsulated by destruction. On Oh Sarah, Rundle hopelessly whispers, barely audibly, surrounded by cold reverb, “Did you try to take the will from out the wave?” That’s some heavy ocean, but Rundle feels like she’s carrying the weight of her own world.