A rawly produced, visceral mediation on trauma
A sobriety journey. A divorce. A move from Kentucky to the West Coast. These are just a few things Emma Ruth Rundle went through while recording her latest release, Engine of Hell. She obviously isn’t kidding around when she calls the recording process an “emotional journey…an upheaval of [her] life, [her] lifestyle.”
Engine of Hell marks a bare-bones new direction for Rundle, who released a dense, sludgy collaborative project with doom-mongering metal outfit Thou just last year. This record is the complete opposite—a quiet, isolated collection of poems-set-to-music featuring only piano, acoustic guitar and the occasional violin. For an album largely centered around the singer’s traumas, this certainly feels appropriate.
The raw production (or “anti-production,” as Rundle calls it) is the album’s biggest draw and the driving force behind its sense of intimacy and catharsis. Her voice sounds impossibly crisp like you’re right there in the room with her, and every tiny, excruciating detail is allowed to bubble to the surface—her curt breaths, her fingers sliding up the guitar strings, the ambiance of the studio.
It’s hard to narrow down just a few key moments, but a good place to start would be the very beginning of the opening track, “Return,” when a rich, sonorous piano chord rings out and commands attention a mere one second into the album. The subsequent track, “Blooms of Oblivion,” keeps this up with the sharp sound of buzzing guitar strings and a noticeable quiver in Rundle’s voice. Later, on “Citadel,” her forceful strumming and brisk chord changes sound so textured they’ll make your fingertips tingle as if you can feel the strings of the guitar along with her.
Details like these are actually painful at times, serving as sonic reminders of the unrelenting trauma Rundle sings about—the aural equivalent of a scab that won’t heal, stinging from time to time just to remind you it’s still there. Her production helps achieve this effect even more than her lyrics, which, while not bad in the slightest, are sometimes so cryptic they risk undercutting the viscerality.
Lines like “your ribbon cut from all the fates/ and some hound of Hell looking for handouts” or “Poised in perfumes, anointed in blue/ The orphans can smile for an afternoon” are admirable (you have to love the alliteration in the former), but they’re also too flowery to signify rawness. Then again, even this works to the album’s benefit, contextualizing and giving extra weight to the starker lyrics, which are sparingly used, such as “down at the methadone clinic we waited” and “we’re moving the body now,” which references the death of a family member during her childhood.
Rundle is open about the precedence her lyrics took over the music during the recording process. “The value of the songs is the lyrics, the content and the emotion,” she said. “The instrumentation should only be there to support that and not get in the way of it.” This might sound unappealing to some, but the album rewards repeated listens with melodies that eventually creep out from the quietude. The biggest earworm is “Razor’s Edge,” a twinkling, major-key acoustic guitar song hooked by a fragile vocal melody sung entirely in a near-whisper.
Engine of Hell is a visceral mediation on trauma boasting elaborate lyrics, sparse instrumentation and some of the finest production of the year, effectively creating a bleak, isolated atmosphere that somehow feels both distant and immediate. And before you assume that Rundle spends the entire 40-minute runtime wallowing in self-pity, unable to put her suffering behind her, take note of the album’s final line: “And now we’re free.”