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Emma Ruth Rundle: Engine of Hell – “a journey through the marshlands of despair”

The Portland-based artist returns with her most fragile record yet.

“There’s no need to check the weather as my winter’s never over,” sings Emma Ruth Rundle on the fractured folk cut, Razor’s Edge – one of the many jarring moments from Rundle’s latest release, Engine of Hell.

November is the perfect month to welcome in Rundle’s Engine of Hell; undoubtedly her most intimate and darkest record yet. As the nights pull in and we are pushed closer to the dark pits of winter, Engine of Hell revels in the iron-grey skies.

Rundle is one of the most important voices in alternative metal today. Having spent the last decade putting her own spin on the origins of grunge and folk, amalgamating both through the smudged lens of metal and doom, Engine of Hell sees Rundle go against her instincts of the past, trading in brawn for balladry.

While previous songs like Heaven and You Don’t Need to Cry Anymore are cloaked in equal emotional burden, Engine of Hell is filled with the same close-to-the-bone intimacy, only Rundle excavates deeper into the pits of dread. These songs, commanding Rundle to strip back the sounds of her past recordings and this raw, grainy new aesthetic perfectly underpins the themes that envelope Engine of Hell.

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From behind the piano, opening song, Return (and later with Dancing Man), sees Rundle possessing a naked poise like never before. She bares all in this frighteningly brave performance.

The doom-y acoustic lament of Blooms of Oblivion contains some of Rundle’s most candid storytelling to date (“Down at the methadone clinic we waited / Hoping to take home your cure / The curdling cowards, the crackle of china / You say that it’s making you pure.” It’s these moments throughout Engine of Hell that dispel the notion of hope, with Rundle comfortably dancing incessantly in the fires.

Emma Ruth Rundle - Engine of Hell

I can’t feel your arm around me,” sings Rundle on Body. A song that almost transfers grief and the kind that feels like it was made exclusively for you. It’s the most beautiful song Rundle has ever written.

Meanwhile, Citadel, a song destined to be a favourite amongst Rundle’s most ardent listeners, smokes out the dark spirits only to find more. Again, Rundle is unfazed. Not shackled by hope, Rundle clearly embraces the darkness and Engine of Hell is all the better for it.

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In My Afterlife ends Engine of Hell the same way it began, with Rundle behind the piano delivering this parting ballad with an unfaltering gaze.

Engine of Hell is a record that transcends existential dread; themes that have always run deep in Rundle’s songwriting DNA.

It’s a space that Rundle seems comfortable in and while many of us may have been waiting for something as heavy as On Dark Horses (2018) or, indeed, Marked for Death (2016), Rundle has instead channelled these particular aggressions via her recent collaboration with Thou (last year’s stunning May Our Chambers Be Full).

Here we see an artist on a journey through the marshlands of despair and with Engine of Hell, Rundle has never sounded so explicit in parting with pain, capturing the heaviness of her previous albums in a different way.  

Engine of Hell is out now via Sargent House. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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