I often like to start these reviews with a little preamble, something to set the scene for what is coming. With Return, Engine Of Hell’s opening track, Emma Ruth Rundle has made this conceit of mine completely redundant. A heartbreakingly beautiful piece of music, constructed from little more than piano and voice, Return almost makes even the concept of reviewing the album seem absurd.
The sparse, simple instrumentation and Rundle’s fluttering, ghostly vocals – ‘Where have you gone to?’, her plaintive voice asks. ‘Where have you gone to?’ – is the perfect overture for an album that, as we will see, takes a much more stripped-down, intimate approach than listeners more familiar with her earlier work might expect. If you can imagine Grouper covering Throwing Muses, then you have some idea of the tear-stained melancholy that leaks from every second of this quite perfect song. It is an astonishing, jaw-dropping piece of work.
For a lesser artist, this would be a clear case of peaking far too early, but Rundle simply accelerates into the comparatively upbeat Blooms Of Oblivion – the intimacy of Return’s spare piano echoed here by the squeaks and scratches of guitar strings – and then drops down into Body’s emotional invocation of early Tori Amos, with a latter section that could quite easily work as a coda to tracks like Winter. The repeated phrase of ‘I’m moving my body now’ becomes laden with dread and mystery when it’s followed by the bleak admission that ‘I can’t feel your arms / around me / anymore’.
The piano/guitar alternation continues with The Company and Dancing Man, both smouldering tracks that make as much use of silence as they do of sound. The Company harks back, perhaps most clearly, to Rundle’s previous work but as a phantom memory of what once was, rather than mere repetition of past successes, whereas Dancing Man fades even further into the shadows with little more than a whisper of vocals and piano.
Razor’s Edge, even considering the calibre of music that we’ve already heard, is a masterpiece of intricate restraint. Recorded at such a level of intimacy it almost sounds like we’re experiencing the music from inside Rundle’s guitar as the track is reminiscent of an MTV Unplugged session from Smashing Pumpkins at their absolute peak, a reference point that also pervaded her recent collaboration with Thou. There’s something about the way that the plucked strings and strummed chords seem to gleefully wrong-foot our expectations – suddenly skipping forward lightly then tumbling down to deep, minor refrains – but still allow Rundle’s voice to twine delicately around the framework they build that is masterfully elegant.
It’s the product, not just of an artist at the height of their powers, but someone who is somehow reaching beyond that height, plucking unalloyed perfection from the ether…
The sinuous beauty of Citadel follows and we’re back to that Kristin Hersh touchpoint with a startlingly intricate track that shows not only Rundle’s mastery of the guitar – in her hands it provides both melody and rhythm – but the versatility and range of her voice. The lyric ‘spending my money / as the petty cash of youth runs out’ is a perfect description of the album’s haunted, wistful cycle-ending and the sadness with which it looks back to the past, fears for the future.
Engine Of Hell closes with In My Afterlife and its muted, simple piano chords which echo Return’s simplicity then eventually resolve into a chorus of high, sorrowful vocals that is as perfect as it is mournful. This is devastating music if calling it by such a commonplace word as ‘music’ is even appropriate. Rundle’s voice soars over the rolling waves of piano like fresh rain falling on a bright morning, like a swift wind blowing in from the sea as she sings a dirge for her own past life; ‘I have a feeling I might be here for a while’. If you need a comparison then the nearest I can conjure is the finest, brightest sections of Chris Izaak’s best work slowed down to a funereal pace, stripped back to its barest elements. As I sit here, with cosy autumn slowly shifting into winter’s chill and the increasingly dark nights sliding down the rain-slicked windows, I can think of few better songs to just play on repeat and lie face down on the floor.
Yet as good as these songs are, and they are incredibly good, Engine Of Hell shines as a complete work, as a complete experience. It’s the product, not just of an artist at the height of their powers, but someone who is somehow reaching beyond that height, plucking unalloyed perfection from the ether. The deceptive simplicity of the music that makes up Engine Of Hell is a mark of great restraint and awareness where lesser talents would add unnecessary elements that detract from the whole, even as they attempt to add to it. Indeed, the fact that extremity in music is still all too often measured by the offensiveness of lyrics, or the loudness of riffs, becomes almost embarrassingly childish when albums this good, this emotionally dense, this piercingly honest, exist.
As listeners, we’re privileged to be able to experience albums like this occasionally, but recently, with records from Lingua Ignota and Anna von Hausswolff, we’ve had a run of absolute excellence. Where Emma Ruth Rundle will go from here is almost frightening to consider, but I’ll be waiting expectantly to find out.
Scribed by: Daniel Pietersen