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.