Artist: Emma Ruth Rundle
Album: EG2: Dowsing Voice
Label: Sargent House
While Emma Ruth Rundle has always had an air of vulnerability with her music and lyrics, there has also seemed to be a buffer. A fact made all the more clear when those buffers are stripped away. These obstacles took the form of added instrumental tracks-bass, secondary guitars, drums, keys etc. to make more standardized rock songs with a folk-type bent. With the release of Engines of Hell, Rundle is entirely stripped bare with minimalist musicianship that augments her haunting voice which moves back and forth between a gloomy-defeated whisper and a heavy and potent, yet seemingly fragile singing vocality. So the seeming progression is to make a sort of “resurgence” record like most musicians do after an especially personal record. However, Emma Ruth Rundle is not most musicians, and has instead chosen to release EG2: Dowsing Voice, a record that strips everything down to its most base foundation, to get to the underlying raw materials and elements.
Perhaps one of the more fascinating factoids about the release of Dowsing Voice, is the fact that it was actually recorded and completed before Engines of Hell, according to Sargent House, the label that Rundle calls home. The album was compiled from recordings made on a personal trip that Rundle embarked on by herself to the Welsh coast, and while I cannot guess as to the exact purpose or reasoning behind its non-sequential release, I have a theory as to why this record was recorded before Engine. The theory being that the recordings that were created while on Rundle’s sojourn were originally intended for herself and herself alone as a sort of meditative processes to get into a place where she felt comfortable to create the incredibly vulnerable Engines of Hell. The reason for this comes from viewing Dowsing Voice as a completed whole before looking at each individual track, which we will most certainly do, as it is an incredible exercise in raw minimalism. There are no lyrics to speak of, only rhythmic chanting, varying vocal improvisations ranging from the guttural to the transcendent, and Rundle’s signature guitar workings, also intermittently improvisational.
When looking at these improvisational elements in conjunction with the very visibly raw album cover artwork, a bloodied self-portrait meant to be an allegory for rebirth, as part of a mass of accompanying visual artwork to be viewed as an extension of this album, one can see that there is a transcendental primalness being sought-after, and obtained through ritualistic expressionism (see link below for the visual accompaniment). The visual-art aspect is all at once, jarring, colorful, trippy, primitive and esoteric, all culminating in a collage of a stripped and bloodied Rundle’s in various poses of either being hunched over and curled upon herself, splayed open and bent back or simply holding herself in a stance of u surety, with an all preceding air of vulnerability . In seeming opposition to this, there are three figures of Rundle fully opened and reverent, in which they are all situated under a bright white cross that stands clean from a haze of blood and smoke, as they gaze up longingly being the few figures with their backs fully turned to the viewer. The only other figure like this and not under the cross is bowed in seeming subservience to it, ostensibly rejecting the primitive paganism drawn upon in the earlier frames, the mother that birthed them. There are twenty-seven images in all, at least on Emma Ruth Rundle’s website that are all as densely impactful as this, but to go on at length about them would detract from my original purpose, the music, and it is something that I feel vastly more qualified to examine than its visual counterparts, past what I’ve done already. I will say only this before moving on, that the images created by Emma Ruth Rundle serve as an enhancement along their musical endeavor and warrant being viewed alongside a play through to the listeners own interpretation.
Intro to the Underpool: The Path, The Gate, The Field, The Well, starts us off a reverbed scratching of a guitar string that sounds like it’s been detuned, and bottomed out on the distortion. Shortly after is a layered whining of a guitar that sounds as if it were being played as a cello, creating a haze-ladened atmosphere of ambiguous ambiance that feels like the opening credits to an indie horror flick you stumble across online, a group of travelers making there way to there next destination while one looks gloomily out on a desolate landscape as the song stretches on layering more nuance as it goes, so that there are peaks of dynamic moments amongst the valleys of lull. As you are trying to decide if it’s worth your time to watch, you realize that the intro has reached its penultimate conclusion, and the next chapter is being unfolded as the characters are being introduced. And that is exactly what Rundle has accomplished in this opening as she gives us a foreshadow of what is to come, in a teased out fashion, culminating in a melodious acoustic strumming that brings us into Keening into Ffynnon Llanflawer.
The melody that begins this track is a haunting one that is given enough time to do its duty in the further realization of the atmosphere that is being deepened as the record progresses. There are shadowed strummings in between the echoey chords that give way to a rustling-scratching effect that sound as if they were produced upon the body of an acoustic guitar when after a few moments we are finally greeted by Rundle’s voice, beautiful in its shaking timidity. It is as if all these elements were combined to create a picture of a woman struggling against some framework that holds her encapsulated, a haunting memory of the unnamed narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Towards the end of the track there is a more intricate approach to the guitar playing in correlation with the strength and longevity of the voice rising, as if steadily having confidence.
In the Cave of The Cailleach’s Death-Birth is a ressonation of circular, and ritualistic echoes. It begins with the droplets of water sounding more metallic the longer they play out, with guttural gruntings in the background. Soon enough they come to the foreground and pick up speed, with a distinctively harsher, more throaty rasp that keeps a steady measured pace, as they lesser more intermittent voices dance around it in a clever bit of mixing so that one feels completely enveloped by songs end and utterly alone when left with one seemingly disparately desperate voice that carries through to the finality. Gathering around Pair Dadeni is a continuation of the ritualized chanting, but with the accompaniment of a guitar, a potential merging of the primalized and modernized self, struggling in a back and forth pattern before being consolidated into a semblance of harmonized song structure, deconstructed though it may be.
Brigid Wakes To Find Her Voice Anew. The Little Flowers and Birds Show Themselves is my favorite track on the record, perhaps because it is the most self-recognizable to me, as I view it in my own context of course. It has a sort of “ugly-prettiness” about it in that there is a gentle unveiling of unity between the guttural start-stop of vocality set against the backdrop of enchanting guitar melody. Soon enough, about a third of the way through the track, there is a resurgence of Rundle’s more “composed” voice that drips with elegance, as if the guitar work is coaxing or charming the beauty out of the primalized voice. Then it begins to unravel as the guitar work and vocals are backmasked, and the gruff distinctive-harsh chantings come around once more, asserting a sort of feral dominance. It feels as if, personally speaking, that there is a desire for unveiling of the true-self, and that self is a fragmented one with seemingly incongruous aspects that is trying to be reconciled in order to form a more complete person on the other side of whatever strife or trauma caused such a state. A new realized self that strives to be more than what it was after an introspective look into the very foundation of personhood that such a self was created upon. But then again, that’s within the lens of my own self-recognition and I could be totally off base, but even if I am, I would be willing to bet it was not off by much.
Being drawn ever deeper into this personal journey, Imbolc Dawn Atop Ynys Wydryn. Ice Melts as The First Resplendent Rays of Spring Pour Over The Horizon. feels like the dawning of an epiphanous episode. We are given nearly a minute of full ambient texture through wilderness recordings before there is a warm vibration of sound that could best be described as warbling. Then once again Rundle appears rising from the void in a ritualistic voice that seems steeped in a hopeful mysticism. Imbolc Dawn is one of the brighter tracks thus far, and makes one wonder if this was some sort of turning point within Rundle’s sojourn that perpetuated such an embracement of warmth. Perhaps one of the most interesting, and telling depending on how you view it, aspects is the final seconds of the track where there are footsteps before a case, maybe one for a guitar, is opened, begging the questions, “was she close to quitting music” or “was this ceremonial to get to something more, something extraordinary?”
The Tempest on Trefasser quickly dampens down such questions with its elusivity that demands attention. Rundle plays as a woman possessed, giving ample time between each Avant-Garde style improvisation for strings to create a pulsating rhythm that makes a living track of the whole experience. There is a disjointed desperation about the whole thing that has glimpses of clear melody before being engulfed in a smattering of scratches, plucking and strummings. Seemingly running anathema to this is Don Danann Dana Danu Ana, that displays clean and clear melodious patterns alongside the song-song voice of returned Rundle. This is the most accessibly straightforward song on the album, that is stripped bare of all extraneous trappings, not to say that they have not all been excellent thus far, and simply leaves the artist and her guitar alone. This is a foreshadow of what was to come in Engines, in what might be considered the crescendo of this record, the rebirth of a new self after an emotive uprooting and disgorging of the past. It is no wonder that the strongest, clearest, and frankly the most heartbreakingly sonorous moment is reserved for the last moments of the track with plenty of room left over for a proper resonation that quavers in gentle power.
Coming into the home stretch,there is Standing Stones Singing / Cellphone Towers Ringing Up To The Darkening Sky, a harmonization of harmonic singing that echoes against itself to the point of creating a singular voice. It feels like a tunnel of sound, which is nearly over as quickly as it begins, being just over a minute it is the second to shortest track on the record. There is then an ambient transition to the final song, In Sadness For Our Dying World (here come the Christians) that starts up with an ethereal wavy guitar effect after the ambient buffer is ended. Rundle greets us after a few moments of guitar work with what closely resembles words, and may just be the only spoken ones on this record, but is quickly swallowed up by a combination of a slurred speech style approach and more backmasking to obfusticate it even further when they synchronize, creating a hypnotic effect with the guitar work that has taken on more of a rhythm role. There is a woven patterned lull that brings the guitar melody to the foreground after a time, while dialing the vocals into the background, then dialing them both back into atmospheric background noise. It would appear that Rundle is concocting both her ritualized primal self that she has cultivated in the form of utterings,chantings, grubtings, and singing and the modernized self represented by the guitar works and effects in a bubbling mass of homogeny into a centralized location to let it bubble and steep over time so that, once emerged, these two halves are fully enmeshed within one another to create an entirely new artistic identity.
EG2: Dowsing Voice is an incredibly dense, complex and personal record. So much so that I really have to wonder if I got any of it right, apologies to Emma Ruth Rundle if I have missed the mark entirely, but dammit all if I didn’t have to try. This is not an easy record, nor is it one for casual listening while one is cooking dinner, as it demands one’s full attention. It is intense, harsh, beautiful, dirty, and transcendental, the perfect admixture of an intelligently emotive record made all the more impressive by its unreliable on lyrics, instead opting for mystifyingly atmospheric intonations that has the rare opportunity to be interpreted in whatever capacity the listener wishes or needs, as there is no connotatively ambiguous means by lyrical content. For all these reasons and more, EG2: Dowsing Voice, is an easy contender for album of the year for me, despite it only being halfway through at the time of this writing, as I can easily envision myself revisiting this piece time and again in the years to come, uncovering even more as I go along my own personal journey.
Be righteous by listening to and supporting Emma Ruth Rundle on Bandcamp: https://emmaruthrundle.bandcamp.com/album/eg2-dowsing-voice
And by experiencing her visual artworks: https://www.emmaruthrundle.com/dowsing-voice/