Emma Ruth Rundle Delivers Another Masterpiece With “On Dark Horses”

My favorite album from 2016 was Emma Ruth Rundle’s Marked for Death. My favorite album from 2018 will be Emma Ruth Rundle’s On Dark Horses. I say this with confidence because it’s that good. It’s so heavy and beautiful, with emotion and intensity oozing out of every note. Nobody else I’ve heard is making music that is this immersive with such a balance of intimacy and raw power.

Rundle stands alone at the intersection of about 30 different musical genres. Sometimes she sounds like dream pop, other times she’s metal, or alternative rock, or post-rock. She often gets called folk, which I kind of get, but it just makes me think that it’s futile to try to describe her in simple genre buzzwords. It’s music that resists easy labels because nobody else has ever made it before. There are a lot of reference points and influences, clearly, but I consider her a true original with no real comparisons. She sounds like everything else and nothing else at the same time.

Rundle’s arrival at this distinct sound was one of my favorite parts of Marked for Death: more than any artist I’m a fan of, she naturally evolved her style from record to record until reaching what felt like a pinnacle. At the time, I was tempted to call it her masterpiece, and the only thing that stopped me was the thought that she was possibly capable of topping it. With On Dark Horses, she has.

Like her last album, On Dark Horses is all about the slow burn. The songs are methodically paced, which creates space for Rundle to do what she does best: create a mesmerizing atmosphere with her guitar. Her songs tend to simmer and then boil over, the quiet verses giving way to loud choruses and powerful dramatic climaxes. This is basic alternative rock quiet-loud stuff, but the way Rundle executes it feels very different. It never feels like a formula; it’s just the natural path the songs go down as Rundle expresses herself. She balances the quiet and loud aspects of her sound perfectly, creating maximum catharsis in every song.

As a singer, Rundle has the versatility to match her guitar. She and her instrument are always intertwined, and she is capable of singing lovely quiet songs, like “Races,” and also belting out some massive rock choruses like the radio-ready hook on “Dead Set Eyes.” It’s crazy that a few years ago, she was doing instrumental music or burying her voice under layers of guitar. Now she is singing with confidence and seems to know how good she is. That never quite manifests itself in conventional rock frontperson swagger, because that isn’t her style, but it’s a feeling that I get listening to it. If the non-music story of Marked for Death was her finding her sound, the story of On Dark Horses is her expanding on it with complete self-assuredness.

That confidence also translates to her lyrics, which may be the biggest shift from her last album. The words on On Dark Horses are more direct and tangible while retaining the poetic ambiguity that they’ve always had. They also play off some of the expectations formed by Marked for Death, which possibly led some to pigeonhole her as another in a line of tormented doom-and-gloom songwriters. “Light Song” is a love song about her husband (who sings and plays on this album) while “Darkhorse” is an encouraging song to her sister, with the lyric “in the wake of weak beginnings, we can still stand high.” Of course, this album still isn’t peppy or upbeat by any stretch of the imagination, but there is more nuance in it than it might get credit for.

But really, I’m not all that concerned with breaking down the lyrics and trying to figure out the “meaning,” because I think the power of Rundle’s music is in its gray areas and the way it washes over the listener without compelling them to feel a specific way. It fits Rundle’s whole style, which exists outside of all of these artificial borders that get ascribed to artists, where they’re expected to fit into certain invisible categorizable boxes. Over her last couple albums, she has created her own genre, and right now it’s my favorite.

#1: Emma Ruth Rundle – “Marked for Death”

Possibly the most satisfying feeling I get as a music fan is hearing an artist I like become an artist I love. After showing potential with all of her previous work, Emma Ruth Rundle finds her voice as a solo artist on Marked for Death, a stunning album that is brimming with intensity and musicality.

Rundle’s development as an artist has been fun to track for the last few years. I first heard her playing with her band Marriages, and on their debut, Kitsune, she showed a gift for creating gloomy, heavy guitar riffs. But her singing mostly took a backseat on that album to her guitar and was used as an instrument to blend in with the music — it was much more about the atmosphere and mood than the lyrics or Rundle herself. Her solo debut, Some Heavy Ocean, went in more of a folk direction while retaining her ambient style. It was one of my favorite albums from that year, but I sensed Rundle had more in her.

Last year, Marriages released Salome, which put Rundle in a different role from her previous music as a more traditional rock frontwoman. This was when I began to notice her singing and lyrics, which became much more integral to the music, and I noted in last year’s year-end extravaganza how Rundle’s passion and intensity as a singer made that album work.

On Marked for Death, all of her skills crystallize on one album, and the result is spellbinding. While it takes the form of a traditional singer-songwriter album, nothing else quite sounds like this. It all comes back to Rundle’s abilities as an ambient composer: while I feel a lot of folk focuses on lyrics at the expense of sound, the gloomy, haunting landscapes she creates with her guitar make Marked for Death an album that would work even if there were no lyrics or vocals.

Rundle is my favorite kind of guitarist: her instrument feels like an extension of herself, and it’s used on this album to build an atmosphere while creating a cohesive whole with her voice and lyrics. It lurks out of the spotlight and supports the vocals, until it springs out of nowhere like on “Protection,” where it shatters the quiet with a massive, scuzzy riff. Even on the acoustic finale, “Real Big Sky,” Rundle’s guitar has a heaviness to it that gives the song an apocalyptic, doomy feeling.

This album sounds so good (which I know is non-descriptive, but like… it just does) that the lyrics and vocals almost feel like a free bonus. But it’s in these areas where Rundle shows the most improvement from her previous music. Her voice works on a similar level as her guitar: she sings in quiet, hushed tones, but then will show the true power of her vocals when the music gets loud, like at the end of “Heaven.” Her lyrics are obsessed with death and the afterlife, with a lot of religious themes and symbolism, which fits her sound and leaves room for interpretation for the listener.

It’s hard to describe why this album works so well (if you can’t tell), but it started to make sense to me when I watched this performance of Rundle performing in the Oregon woods in a rusty old truck. It’s a perfect setting for her music because it underscores her naturalness as a performer. Marked for Death is so original and different, but it’s not an album where the artist is self-consciously trying to sound like nobody else has ever sounded. Rundle is just being herself, and this album firmly establishes her as one of the most unique and compelling artists in music today.