Emma Ruth Rundle’s “Engine of Hell” is Quietly Devastating

Emma Ruth Rundle’s music has been getting heavier and heavier the last few years, moving from the gloomy folk on Some Heavy Ocean to the noisy, dynamic guitar rock of Marked for Death and On Dark Horses, and reaching a crescendo last year on May Our Chambers Be Full, a collaborative album with the metal band Thou. Her latest, Engine of Hell, would seem to be a massive departure: Rundle recorded it herself acoustically with minimal accompaniment and no production flourishes, with a focus on being as raw and stripped down as possible. I was initially worried about this because I was so in love with the sound of her last two albums, but I ended up surprised at how not-different this feels. The traits that make Rundle’s music special are still here in spades: passion, emotion, and off-the-charts intensity.

I’ve frequently expressed skepticism about this kind of miserable, lo-fi folk music, but Rundle is too good to have any of the pitfalls that make me sometimes struggle with it. Nothing on Engine of Hell is affected or put-on; it doesn’t have that feeling that the artist is waiting for you to congratulate them on their bravery for putting themselves out there like this. Most importantly, even in this much quieter aesthetic, Rundle maintains a clear sense of musicality and craft. These songs crackle with life, making them compelling to listen to compared to a lot of artists who adopt the idea of “sad music” and sound tedious because they don’t back it up with musicianship. This is more comparable to something like PJ Harvey’s White Chalk, an album that is using quiet, space, and a different vocal style to show the artist’s familiar gifts in a different way than you’ve heard before.

Rundle’s music has never been a barrel of monkeys, but on previous releases, listeners could let themselves get lost in the fog of her guitar soundscapes and her rock hooks. Engine of Hell offers no such solace; it feels like the album is staring at you and you can’t hide from it. On one hand, this is uncomfortable, especially given the themes and lyricism at play, but it’s also a source of rare catharsis to hear an artist be this real and unconcerned with sounding flawed (the album was recorded with minimal takes). The result is that Engine of Hell doesn’t really make me depressed because I find myself inspired by Rundle and her abilities.

While her electric guitar has often been the main focus of praise, Engine of Hell solidifies Rundle as one of music’s best singers. The sparse instrumentation puts the focus on her vocals, and she shows a wider range and more expressiveness than she ever has before. On the opening piano ballad “Return,” she sings in a higher register to sound angelic and fragile; elsewhere, like on “Razor’s Edge,” she takes on a more whispery, conversational tone, like she’s confiding in the listener. More important than any notes she hits is her innate ability to make you believe in and feel whatever she is singing. Rundle’s lyrics do not provide typical obvious interpretations, but from her performance, it’s easy to pick up on the moods and ideas she is working with. It sounds like she’s legitimately been through some shit and is singing from the heart instead of putting on a performance or receding into a stage version of herself.

Rundle has alluded to some of that in interviews about the album, mentioning feeling lost in life and struggling with drugs/alcohol on top of the COVID anxieties most of us have been dealing with. “The Company” most directly can be construed as about addiction, with its closing lyrics (“my whole life/some dark night/is so much brighter now/without you”) possibly representing her ongoing sobriety, though everything is written in such a way that pigeonholing the lyrics to specific stories defeats the purpose a bit. Rundle puts her heart into these songs, but also constructs them so that listeners can do the same in their own way, which is a subtle part of her greatness. And musically, she’s developed a desolate, austere style that conveys her ideas and stories more than words possibly could — the songs sound like they were an internal struggle and weren’t written or performed easily.

During COVID, I think I’ve leaned a little too hard into music that is escapist, using albums as a chance to “get away from it all.” Nothing is necessarily wrong with that, but Engine of Hell is a reminder that there is a lot of power in confrontational art that shows you something you don’t necessarily want to see. It captures a lot of the feelings I’ve probably been burying — more than any other album in the last couple of years, this has the soul-crushing loneliness, the hopelessness and despair, and the retreat into isolation and memory that typifies this era. And it’s conveyed with an artful plainness that makes it even darker and heavier than if Rundle had her usual loud electric guitar accompanying her. I don’t know if she necessarily set out to make an album that “speaks to the times” or anything, but in tackling her own demons, she’s made a work that is relatable and truly haunting.

Cold Beat’s “War Garden” is a Pandemic-Era Triumph

One of the singles off Cold Beat’s latest, War Garden, is called “Mandelbrot Fall,” and it might be their best song yet. Somewhere around my 50th time listening to it, I realized I had no idea what a “Mandelbrot” was, so I went to Wikipedia because I hate not knowing things. The page for the “Mandelbrot Set” had a lot of words on it that seemed to pertain to advanced mathematics. There were also some pretty pictures of some psychedelic circles and spirals, which apparently are what the Mandelbrot set looks like, because I guess math functions can look like something. I still wasn’t smart enough to understand much of this, but one paragraph on the page was in words I kind of understood and thus caught my attention:

The Mandelbrot set has become popular outside mathematics both for its aesthetic appeal and as an example of a complex structure arising from the application of simple rules. It is one of the best-known examples of mathematical visualizationmathematical beauty, and motif.

One of the staples of this blog has been me gushing about Cold Beat but not really being able to put my finger on why I love them so much. Posts about them would often be me trying to think of different ways to write “I like this song because it sounds good.” But seeing this paragraph about the Mandelbrot set, it all clicked for me: this is what Cold Beat is. Their music is complex intellectually, but also made of these simple elements; it’s definitely brainy and analytical, but also at times beautiful. The songs on War Garden, more than any others they’ve recorded, reflect this perfect balance of attributes that seem like they would be incongruous — kind of like an equation, though I guess that is branching into chemistry instead of geometry.

Cold Beat is even more firmly on the synth pop path here, and I’ve been recently learning more about some of their influences for these albums, including The Human League and (more obscurely) Oppenheimer Analysis. Certainly there is an 80s vibe going on in the sound, but I still find this to be an original band — there’s a very specific yet intangible mood to a Cold Beat song that I haven’t really found in anything else. “Mandelbrot Fall” is a quintessential example, with the wistful feeling from the nostalgic synths, Hannah Lew’s warm vocals, and the swirling melodies all colliding into this pop song that feels familiar and futuristic all at once. Another highlight, “Weeds,” is similarly constructed, with some indie rock guitar joining the synth, creating a song that is an addictive mix of these different influences and moods. A lot of bands simply replicate old sounds they like; Cold Beat uses ideas from the past to make something completely new.

Befitting this retro-futuristic sound, War Garden feels like it is simultaneously looking backwards and forwards. A lot of it deals with the pandemic, and mid-album songs like “See You Again” (probably the most straight-forward thing they’ve written) and “Year Without a Shadow” deal with the now-familiar themes of isolation and missing your friends. There’s the nostalgia in those songs for better days, but on “See You Again” especially, there are also feelings of resolve and faith — the idea that “I will see you again,” which Lew sings like she’s holding onto something that will keep her going through tough times. The final song on the album, “New World,” has an even more optimistic tone, with a more upbeat danceable pop style. Cold Beat songs tend to be vague and malleable by design, but I feel a clear progression in the sound on War Garden from the darker days of the pandemic to the possibility of a light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s a tricky thing to be optimistic these days without it coming off as dopey or na├»ve, but it’s pulled off here in typical nuanced fashion. It’s less “things are gonna be great!” or “nothing bad is happening” and more about holding onto dreams and a belief that there are still good days ahead. It sounds like one of Lew’s pandemic activities was gardening, and accordingly the band gave out flower seeds with each vinyl order of War Garden, with the idea that it would bloom into a flower while it shipped. This nod towards growth and rejuvenation is a big part of the album, and the flower represents the way I’m thinking of War Garden as something beautiful and hopeful amidst darkness and chaos. Cold Beat has been on a run of great albums, but this one feels particularly special. It’s their most human and accessible work so far, and it captures the complicated pandemic feelings better than anything I’ve heard.

Colleen Green has Matured (A Little) On “Cool”

Like a lot of people, I was saddened a few weeks ago by the death of Norm MacDonald, who I consider to be possibly the funniest guy who ever lived. One of the things I appreciated about Norm was how, in an era with a lot of “smart” comics who fancy themselves as philosophers, he was very willing to play the idiot. Some of Norm’s most iconic clips are him just acting like a goofball around people who are trying to be serious, and I often came away thinking he had just outsmarted all the people he was talking to, even as they were trying to appear intelligent and he was cracking stupid jokes. Norm really was the smartest guy in the room, in part because he didn’t care about revealing it to others.

I get some similar vibes from Colleen Green, who just released Cool, her first album since 2015’s I Want to Grow Up. I was obsessed with that album on a couple different levels: emotionally, I related strongly to the lyrics, and analytically I was fascinated with its weird kind of unassuming greatness. In a lot of ways, the album broke convention from the type of stuff I normally hype up: it was not even remotely subtle, it didn’t have a lot of creativity or ambition, and I doubt even Green herself would claim to be a particularly virtuosic musician who makes sounds you’ve never heard before. This made it an easy album for a lot of listeners to dismiss after one or two listens, and because Green presents herself in a somewhat frivolous manner (the jokes and stoner girl imagery), it never got much in the way of critical praise.

But I argued (and still do) that Green is a lot smarter than she gets credit for. She knows her own limitations and within those boundaries makes songs that are consistently fun to listen to and affecting while having the musical equivalent of character development. Her direct, unpretentious approach works largely because of her unflinching honesty. Of course, the majority of artists are honest, but there’s a difference between what I think of as “convenient honesty” and what Green does. Most will reveal themselves through art, but only the parts that still make them seem sympathetic, wise, or good. Green is very willing to sing about foibles that don’t necessarily paint her in a positive light to some listeners, which is both realer and a lot more brave. When I listened to “Deeper Than Love,” I had no doubt those were her real feelings, because why would anyone make that up?

I Want to Grow Up paired that brutal honesty with mostly straight-forward, loud guitar rock, creating an experience that was like being pummeled over and over again by reality, but in a way that was weirdly enjoyable. On Cool, Green has matured somewhat; there’s more of a variety of sounds and moods, which makes the album a little less directly impactful. The atmospheric “Highway” uses a synth and Green’s near-spoken delivery to replicate a night drive — Green says she prefers the scenic route, which I suspect is a metaphor for the ambling pace she lives her life at. The most adventurous track is “Natural Chorus,” which is pretty much Colleen Green does Stereolab. Most of the song is a simple motorik groove, and it’s another point where she shows a willingness to create more subtle moods with sound, along with the long opening riff on “Someone Else” and a closing guitar instrumental, the questionably-titled “Pressure to Cum.”

Those songs add some textures to the album, but Green is still most in her element when she’s making simple guitar pop that shows her personality. “You Don’t Exist” is a relentlessly catchy tune where she “calls bullshit” on social media, and “It’s Nice to Be Nice” has her reminding herself to be kinder to others (“it’s nice to be nice, it’s good to be good”) and reap the rewards. In typical form, this isn’t the most groundbreaking material, but Green presents it in a refreshing way. She doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, like she is the teacher instructing her listener students — she’s just exploring her own feelings in a way that is always direct and unpretentious, with a mix of seriousness and humor. Even as she explores new styles and matures, her ability to do that is what makes Green one of my favorite songwriters to listen to.