Rundle dials back the volume, reveals wrenching collection of memories on ‘Engine of Hell’

Photo by Mason Rose

When we hear particularly painful and poignant music, we have a tendency to shower the artist with praise for having the strength to be so open. And that’s for good reason because it cannot be easy to share one’s tougher moments with the entire world. But I think sometimes we forget to revel in that creator’s actual pain, the struggle and sorrow that impacted them for real and is on full display.

Emma Ruth Rundle long has been an artist who leaves everything out there, and you know when you hear her music, she’s showing you the scars that led to where you are in that moment. But her new record “Engine of Hell” is amplified to degrees that might make listening uncomfortable at times if you happen to be an empathetic person. These eight songs are fully stripped down, featuring just piano, acoustic guitar, and her voice, a huge step away from the full-band treatment of her past couple records. There’s an interview Rundle just did with Stereogum that can paint this picture more fully than we can here, but suffice to say these song revel in painful childhood memories, her mental state, and ghosts that have haunted her, which she displays with total exposure on these songs. The record is arresting and incredibly heavy for being so quiet, and it must remain in front of one’s mind just what Rundle experienced to create this album. It’s heart crushing, unsettling, and devastating.

“Return” immediately lets you know things are different this time as it is starkly quiet, just Rundle’s voice and piano, and it absolutely takes control of you. “No one to steady your hands,” she calls, sounding worried, and then she pleads, “Where have you gone to?” as she hits a higher register later, calling, “Return to me.” “Blooms of Oblivion” has piano and acoustics balancing as things are painful. “Down at the methadone clinic we waited, hoping to take home your cure,” Rundle recalls, quivering and quiet. Keys drip as the singing is breathier and totally vulnerable, aching into her noting, “A fistful of sorries you’ll never say,” as the track winds to a close. “Body” brings dark, echoing piano, reminding a lot of Tori Amos as she moves gently through murky waters. A male voice joins her on the chorus, adding a ghostly presence, and later Rundle admits, “I’m still a little girl who needs you one more time,” a heartbreaking admission that gets more devastating when she calls, “I can’t feel your arms around me.”  “The Company” has acoustics brushing, moving quietly but steadily. Things warm up later even if the sentiment stays cold as Rundle jars with, “My whole life is so bright now without you,” that just cuts you down and leaves you heaving on your knees.

“Dancing Man” has keys dripping and the essence feeling a little looser as the playing moves like rain. “You’ll wear your makeup, and I’ll wear my mask,” Rundle calls as the pianos get louder, and the whole atmosphere thickens and brings emotional power. “Razor’s Edge” feels rustic and airy, a track that wades deep in folk waters. The playing is softer and unassuming, the singing keeps leaving moisture on your arms, and the final moments feel like an old soul brushing against your back. “Citadel” starts with Rundle declaring, “There is a fortress in my heart, I try to get there in my dreams,” as strings aches and the texture layers. The track feels cold and dreary, picking up as the clouds thicken, and then the final moments get more aggressive, with the guitar strings stretched to their limits. “In My Afterlife” closes the record, and while it doesn’t sound like it, it reminds of the same sentiment delivered by “Real Big Sky” at the end of “Marked for Death.” “I have a feeling I might be here a while,” Rundle confesses as bare-bones playing amplifies the dusk, the shadows thicken, and the track bows out to the night.

Every time Emma Ruth Rundle returns with new music, it’s an experience like no other, a journey into the heart and mind that often is painful to experience. “Engine of Hell,” words that finally drop on the closing track, is both an arresting experience based on Rundle’s stripped-back, naked approach but also full of blunt, seeping pain based on the events that inspired these songs. We’re lucky to have such an honest, vulnerable record to explore and get to know, but at the same time, it’s crushing to think of what Rundle had to endure to create this collection. We hope to have her with us long into the future, making music that is unlike anyone else’s on earth.

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