Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine Of Hell: Album Review

Emma Ruth Rundle delves deep in a lyrical and musical masterpiece.

Release Date: 5th November 2021

Label: Sargent House

Format: CD / digital / vinyl

Many might argue that 2018’s On Dark Horses was Emma Ruth Rundle at her peak. Those deep and swirling soundscapes showed just one side of her craft as a multifaceted musician, be it in dreamy abstraction, maximalist textural explorations in the classic acoustic guitar singer-songwriter mode.

Engine Of Hell abandons that swampy density and presents Emma Ruth Rundle at the instrument that she left behind in her early twenties when she began playing in bands: the piano. However, any thoughts that the stripped back and bare new songs might be any less potent are soon banished.In combination with her voice, the piano playing on Engine Of Hell creates an in depth intimacy, as if we’re sitting beside Rundle on the bench, or perhaps even playing the songs ourselves. 

She talks of wanting to “capture imperfection and the vulnerability of my humanity,” and the performance and production delivers in spades. Exploring the deeply personal, the memories and experiences find her right on the edge, “dipping my toe into the outer reaches of space and I’m taking you with me and it’s very fucked up and imperfect.” Flying by the seat of her pants and wallowing in the opportunity to present a rare exposure – how many other artists would even offer, never mind thrive in such austerity?

Recorded almost entirely live with minimal overdubs, and the effect is an extremely up-close and personal confessional with a sharp focus on the subtleties and timbre of Rundle’s vocal and musical performances. It’s very much on the same page as an iconic piece of music such as Nick Drake’s Pink Moon captures a moment. That alignment where a masterful songwriter strips away all flourishes and embellishments in order to make every note and word hit with maximum impact. There’s no place to hide, yet there’s the sense that hiding is the last thing she wants to do.

Lyrically, the album offers little in terms of shade in the glare of confession. “Some hound of Hell looking for handouts” – “Down at the methadone clinic we waited, hoping to take home your cure” – and the memory of seeing a deceased family member being taken away by strangers on Body all play a part in the opening sequence. The sort of expereinces and visions that live with you – may they scar or make you more strong.

The memories and their accompanying songs aren’t always founded on grief though. Dancing Man is one of the most delicate and fragile songs on the album, with a breathy delivery giving it a distinctly wispy and wistful quality. Yet the song chronicles a cherished memory of Rundle dancing with a friend—an experience to returns to in dark moments and the need for the reminder of “perfect days with this perfect love that exists in a space which can never be taken away from me, can never be ruined, can never be changed.”

The definitive statement comes with the final song In My Afterlife where the verses focus on passing on against a drape of sparsely arranged chords on the piano. That sobriety turns redemptive on the choruses, where the melody shifts from minor to major key, and Rundle to revel in the thought of becoming untethered to the past. “Things DO have to change and have changed for me since I finished recording it.” 

Some may herald the album as a major turning point for Emma Ruth Rundle both personally and artistically. This cathartic type of songwriting effectively serves its purpose, not only to herself but others who may well find solace and support in what she says and how she says it. Simple yet overwhelming and in the sense of giving release to trauma and grief, listening (nay, experiencing) Engine Of Hell is therapy in itself. While On Dark Horses was a sublime album, Engine Of Hell takes a sonic U turn yet maintains the impact; devastatingly so.

Here’s the lead single Return:

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