Rundle’s epic journey of suffering
Emma Ruth Rundle returned with yet another strong solo effort on September 14, 2018, On Dark Horses. Though Rundle has been working on solo projects for the past few years, she started out with The Nocturnes, a band whose music spans from dream pop to folk, and found widespread attention within the post-rock scene through her work with the Red Sparrowes. She continued to experiment on the guitar with Electric Guitar: One, an atmospheric introspection of the instrument that was as meditative as it was eerie. She explored electronica and darkwave with Somnambulant, only to shift back towards folk-rock on Some Heavy Ocean and the painstakingly raw Marked for Death.
Like a chameleon, Rundle successfully immerses herself into any genre she takes on. For On Dark Horses, she brings her ethereal vocals and intense songwriting to the drama of gothic rock. “Fever Dream,” the album’s opener, pairs steady, pounding drums with her silky vocals. The crashing electric guitars that ring away during the chorus accompany Rundle’s lyrics that depict the emotional manifestations of anxiety. Her words flow in a stream of consciousness, revealing how jumbled and complicated her thoughts are when it comes to self-reflection. As intense as the instrumental is, however, its major-chord moments hint at a glimmer of hope to all of Rundle’s beautifully illustrated worries.
Though the majority of On Dark Horses is introspective, “Darkhorse” takes on an interesting perspective. It is addressed to her younger sister, offering the kind of solidarity and support only a family member could to a loved one in a traumatic experience. The way Rundle conveys her advice suggests an even deeper involvement–it seems as if she has suffered from the same situation herself. Over pounding drum beats and gorgeous electric guitars, she shares coping mechanisms passed down from their mother and the support it takes to keep each other moving forward. On “Darkhorse,” Rundle comes to terms with the hurt that has affected her and her sister, allowing it to become a defining point of their mental and emotional strength rather than weakness. Here, Rundle is raw and uninhibited, resulting in one of the most powerful moments on the album.
At other times, Rundle’s lyrics are much more impressionistic. On “Control” and “Races,” she writes in broad strokes, creating compelling imagery that enhances the atmospheric guitars and crashing drums around it. “Control” illustrates blood and wounds, hell and Satan, dawn and dusk, creating an ominous mood over meandering guitar and drum beats. “Races” is similarly slow, taking its time to unpack the textures and lyrics Rundle has so carefully loaded in. It feels heavy, especially in the way Rundle describes her fears of fading away and being imprisoned in the environment she grew up in, rendered immobile. The gentleness of the guitars on “Races” show Rundle’s vulnerability in her efforts to right against what’s oppressing her. In both of these songs, Rundle uses the instrumentals to propel the choppy, nonlinear emotions she lays out in her lyrics.
Rundle also expresses her turbulent romantic relationships on On Dark Horses. “Dead Set Eyes” utilizes a swaying, modulated guitar melody for Rundle to reveal how imprisoned and powerless she feels to all of the men in her life, as well as the environments that she finds herself in. Ironically, the instrumental is quite euphoric, ending with a synthesized blaze that resembles the numbness of the self-medication she sings about. On the other hand, she also speaks of her dreams to be married on a duet with a spoken male voice on “Light Song.” By placing these two tracks side by side, Rundle shows how tumultuous love and relationships can be, all within a brief span of time.
Rundle addresses time and aging directly on “Apathy on the Indian Border.” She agonizes at the quick passage of time and the marks it has left on her physically and emotionally. The guitars start off soft but crescendo into pained strums paired with powerful drums, with Rundle’s soft voice contrasting starkly against her own message and the intensity of the drums. “Apathy on the Indian Border” particularly captures the essence of On Dark Horses–it shows Rundle unabashedly bearing her worn and damaged heart on her sleeve, giving a look inside how she copes and deals with life’s greatest challenges. Though On Dark Horses certainly has its moments of hope, such as the gorgeous lullaby of a closer “You Don’t Have To Cry,” it is most profound when Rundle allows herself to dive into her struggles, expressing her emotions as they are.