Review Summary: From the other side of the abyss.
I remember being petrified, sitting alone on the cold floor of what used to be the living room of the house where I had spent most of my life. Lights were dim, and the night wind howled through the open windows with a gentle late summer breeze. It was September 2019, my mum had died three days ago, and my dad, standing accused of having let her die by the rest of my family, had been consequently punished with exile. Parked in his wheelchair in some remote nursing home in the outskirts of the city, he now withers away without revealing what really happened the day she died. This, I will never know. I felt her presence like someone feels the embrace of the sea under the waves, or better said, her absence, and the impossibly heavy burden that came with it. I felt it so heavy, that for a moment I thought my heart would rip though my ribs, falling through my holed body and unto the floor like a black mass of organic sorrow. How could silence be so deafening, so cruel, and so unbearably unnerving...
Engine of Hell
somehow feels like this. The author, Emma Ruth Rundle, an artist whose music and art I've been making a part of me since the release of Marked For Death
in 2016, might have her own motives to write an album like this, reasons that I will leave untouched here, as she has done enough interviews about it elsewhere, but her last work has breached through the walls I have been building around my mother’s passing for years, just like scissors cutting silk. Emma's fifth album is difficult to judge, to critic, to write about. How can anyone treat a collection of songs that come from the deeper corners of the heart with something as banal as an objective take on it? I refuse to do so. I listen to "Blooms of Oblivion" and I feel the kind of vertigo I felt when the last tie with she who brought me into this world was severed without a warning. Emma has recreated with a few notes, a few chords, and a few words, the sound of a scream lost in the abyss. Even the Bandcamp page for the album features a black background and no description whatsoever. This is the artist in her purest and most essential form, and no press release, promo material or review could ever describe what lies beyond the music.
The Engine of Hell
indeed, is what powered the shadows closing in around me in my old home, my Christmas sanctuary, now turned into a tomb of memories and treasures of my youth that burned in a dumpster close by, leaving behind only ashes, silent dust and creeping echoes. Every piano note Emma lays her fingers on since "Return" falls like the instrument was thrown through the window over you hits like a punch on the deepest core of the spirit, her voice devoid of effects, singing sometimes tiredly, sometimes feverish, letting her sharp lyricism weave a tale of change and salvation.
Surely, it's not the first time Emma Ruth Rundle draws from anguish and solitary pains. Some Heavy Ocean
and Marked for Death
weren't exactly music for birthday parties, but she did turn a new page on 2019’s On Dark Horses
with an album that felt like she was finally riding on the fragile wings of love and ephemeral happiness. Her last record featured a whole band, and the songs were built around that concept, resulting in a blissful wave of shoegazed folk that if anything, resembled her sound with Marriages.
Not here. All that has been removed in Engine of Hell
in favor of intimacy, of honesty, these are moments between you and Emma, and nothing else. Most of the songs are built around the piano, an instrument she used to play in her younger days and that she has recovered for this last album. There also are callbacks to the early folk of her past albums in tracks like "Blooms of Oblivion" or "Razor's Edge", although even these sound very different from the Emma of those past recordings. There's a frail sensibility that wasn't present then and her melodies are not as immediate as songs like "Shadows of my Name" or "Real Big Sky". One of my favorite cuts of the album, "Citadel", might be the closest sound to that era, her guitar down tuned to hell as always and with only stark violin arrangements lurking behind her voice as she strums the instrument with uneven intensity.
It makes sense that the final track is titled "In My Afterlife". The Engine of Hell
powers a deep change in Emma's life after a series of events that demanded it so. The same way I closed the door of my former house never to return, Emma has done so with everything that preceded this last album. It has been beautifully (and cryptically) represented in the videos she has directed herself for “Return” and “Blooms of Oblivion”, a step further in the realization of her newfound artistic vision, which was partly (and coincidentally?) featured in the cover of her collaborative effort with Louisiana sludge masters Thou last year. "Now I'm free..."
are the last words she exhales before the album comes to an end leaving me somewhat breathless for a few seconds until I return to my body. It’s another impressive piece of art from the everchanging Emma Ruth Rundle, and the beginning of something entirely different from the wandering artist. Engine of Hell
is out through Sargent House and she’ll be sharing these songs with you live next year around Europe if the world still stands. You’d be a fool to miss it.