Album Review: Engine of Hell – Emma Ruth Rundle

November often parallels how many feel when days grow quickly dark and all the green of the summer dries into brown – we find ourselves turning inward to focus on the dark and the heavy to make way for a hopefully healthy introspection to take its course, and to bring back a warmer sense of self. This particular November, Emma Ruth Rundle brings to us a collection of deeply moving tracks. “Engine of Hell,” released November 5th, contains 8 songs that bring you into a zone of mellow dreamscapes and heart-tugging, whispery voices.

“Author of a Poor Design,

no one to steady your hand”

“Engine of Hell” opens its curtains with “Return.” A gentle lift of weighty piano presses is a stark but natural departure from the sounds and themes from prior albums. Here, you will not find guitar chords dripping in reverb or a voice lifted up through cloudy echoes of downtuned instrumentation, but rather a bare voice and dark, moody keys. This track is accompanied by a music video that plays out as an existential short film of both despair and hope.

The second track, “Blooms of Oblivion,” starts with a ribbon of a riff that curls inward and bounces at its end. These lyrics are clearly very personal, not unlike albums from years past, so it feels unfair to speculate what they may be about, but they certainly are rife with imagery of coping with things difficult to uncover and share with others.

“Judas come close to me

Visit in visions

Tell me the story of how

you swing like an actor in the greyest of gardens

your tongue hanging free from your mouth”

A faint orchestral passage sighs out beneath the chorus like such a sad breeze, and then the guitar riff carries us to a new set of lyrics. The song leaves you feeling like you just journeyed up the tallest hill, only to collapse at the very top, horribly worn-out but glad to have gotten so far. The third track, and possibly one of my favorites from the album, “Body,” begins with a painfully pretty piano line. During the verses, the piano moves along like a dancer on their tip-toes, but when moving along into the chorus, the song slows itself down and begins to chunk out heavier chords. This song includes lyrics Emma Ruth Rundle fans may be already familiar with: “You know my arms are always around you.” Rundle recycles her own words in the most interesting ways. A masculine voice joins Rundle’s as a low rumbling whisper during the chorus.

“We’re moving the body now.”

“Body” ends with the line, “I can’t feel your arms around me anymore.”  Fellow writer Joel has noted that this album has a quality similar to that of the great Tori Amos, and I couldn’t agree more, specifically, in my opinion, the 1996 “Boys for Pele” era.

The next track on the album, “The Company,” begins with a tone that reminds me of a rainy day. There’s light piano and a guitar that has a moody dissonance to it, but then slides temporarily up into a more hopeful sound, if only for a brief moment. The waver in the voice during the line, “So divine, deformed, defiled,” is so powerful. This track holds so much sorrow, but with perhaps a small light of something next to hope, too.

“…so much brighter now without you.”

Track 5, “Dancing Man,” has a peaceful piano line that climbs with uncertainty, then falls back into resolve to accompany words softly breathed out.

“Keep some balance, my gentlest friend.”

This one, a simpler sounding tune with hushed, quivering vocals that grow louder atop chunked out piano hammerings. The final verse back into the chorus is satisfying with in its return. The hands push down the keys with a bit more force, and the song ends. “Razor’s Edge” begins with beautifully picked strings that sound a touch lighter than a few songs before it, but still sits weighted with similar themes. It sounds like traveling down a well-worn path with a friend.

“There’s no need to check the weather, as my winter never ends.”

Though I would argue that all these songs are catchy in their own right, this one is such an earworm. The finger-picking carries the words well. The next track, “Citadel,” introduces the first bout of layered vocals, bringing chills to those that listen. Humming stringed instruments wheeze out under the verses. All songs found here are very clearly rich with emotion, but this track hits just a bit differently and I can’t necessarily place my finger on it, but the more hushed passages being greeted by harsher strummed guitar chords add quite the impact. Final track, “In My Afterlife,” opens with piano that moves in unexpected ways. There’s subtly textured soundscapes lowly played out in the back creating a dreamy hammering for the voice to tumble over.

Press release statements include this: “The catharsis of this type of songwriting has effectively served its purpose, and to continue ruminating on the past going forward is less of a healing process and more like picking at a scab and refusing to let it heal. This may help explain why Rundle is less than enthusiastic about divulging the details about her muses, but it doesn’t alter the fact that these songs served a purpose in their creation, and that they may continue to bring comfort to others.”

In essence, this album does not come across as too different from anything else found in Rundle’s discography, yet it feels wholly new. Whatever it is, it remains clear that everything she creates helps to dig out something found within all of us.

I can certainly understand if many readers of this site do not find this album appealing to their tastes, but I do believe in the power of listening to something more than once or twice!

Rating: 4.5/5

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