Achieving crossover appeal among the metal community has become quite a bit easier as times trudged along. Even poppy, synth-laden genres like retrowave have found a warm spot in some metalheads’ blackened hearts. This is a more than a welcome phenomenon in my eyes; many of my flings and favs over the years have been artists who’ve repped a metal-adjacent image/sound while staying firmly rooted in their own, off-genre sound. The brooding neofolk of Marissa Nadler and King Dude‘s devilish Americana immediately comes to mind, as does the early work of one Ms. Chelsea Wolfe (though her dive into post-metal has been delightful, as well).
For my money, Emma Ruth Rundle fits this bill as well, what with her spot on Sargent House’s notoriously metal-friendly roster. Though most metal fans likely don’t need this level of hand-holding or convincing to leave the genre bubble, it’s a fine point I’d like to bore in on with no subtlety. Rundle offers the moods, shades and hues found in everything from blackgaze to post-metal to drone-doom, and she does so with a striking balance of precision and a penchant for stirring atmospheres. It takes considerable talent to splice multiple worlds with an emphasis on their overlapping qualities, and with On Dark Horses, Rundle exhibits pure mastery of this quality compositional tool.
The aforementioned traits that were present during Chelsea Wolfe’s early career are equally potent throughout On Dark Horses. Aided by perfectly balanced reverb and a haunted, power-through-pain vocal delivery, Rundle’s approach to songcraft leverages atmospheres equally indebted to shoegaze and ethereal wave with equal influence from the realm of post-black metal. It conjures a feeling of weightlessness, a sensation similar to complete surrender to the wandering insights and pains of a restless mind. And through it all, Rundle proves her strengths as a songwriter in the purest sense of the word. There are countless earworm moments amid the swirling atmospheres, which add up to a one-two punch in the most emotionally chilling sense of the term.
There are plenty of scenic highlights along Rundle’s eight-track journey, with a few of particular note. Right out of the gate, “Fever Dreams” establishes a strong foundation for the ways in which the succeeding songs will unravel. Rundle’s vocal delivery and overall musical presentation feel indebted to that specific late-80s/90s pocket of alt-rock, with a particular likeness to The Cranberries and Cocteau Twins. That sweet spot of catchiness achieved without forgoing mood and deeper expression is precisely what makes On Dark Horses work as well as it does. The album opener is, again, a phenomenal opening statement in this regard. Nods to alt-country, gothic Americana and neofolk swirl around a strong alt-rock foundation with just the right amount of reverb and moodiness. “Control” immediately follows this track up with the same approach, with the added strength of a pensive, catchy guitar melody that remains one of the best on the album as the rest of the tracklist winds down. And in her own way, the Pixies-esque loud-quiet-loud dynamic works to bolster the impact of this subdued melodic highlight.
I’ve given The Cranberries and the late Dolores O’Riordan a shoutout already, but another 90s songstress comes to mind on “Light Song.” Rundle dials up the attitude in her delivery in a way that screams “PJ Harvey,” like a mixture of To Bring You My Love and White Chalk. The refrain on the track bears the massive, lasting impact of “Down By the Water,” with a slow, plodding beat and crashing cymbals and thundering bass reverberations backing up methodical, soaring vocals from Rundle. Equally stunning is “Apathy on the Indiana Border,” which has the feel of an indie folk track that’s perpetually on the cusp of a post-black metal explosion. The balance of a skeletal folksy core with bold atmospheres and the near-crescendo song trajectories make for an exceptional penultimate track.
At the midway and endpoint of the album, we have what’s essentially The Smiths played through a depressive fog. “Dead Set Eyes” is like the jangle-pop icons’ more twangy moments reimagined as catchy, ethereal wave gems, with sliding chords, whining notes and a steady, massive pace. Truly, the notes on this track (and the album genre) hit hard, nearly on par with a Neurosis riff tweaked to have a more melodic, moody landing. And of course, Rundle’s singing has that alluring tone and delivery that made The Cranberries such a smash hit back in the day. At the album’s conclusion, “You Don’t Have to Cry” has those signature Johhny Marr arpeggios and guitar progressions, albeit with a much slower pace and a heightened emphasis on allowing them to ring out and craft a lingering mood rather than a tight, packaged hook.
The elements that comprise On Dark Horses touch on a myriad of strengths from seemingly disparate styles and work even better as a cohesive unit. In the hands of Rundle, these styles become an incredible foray into both their darkest and most emotive aspects. I know “there’s something for everyone” can often have a hollow, indistinct ring to it, but this is exactly the case with On Dark Horses. Those afraid of venturing outside of metal, as well as those who frequent the genre’s outskirts, will discover an album chock-full of extraordinary quality that only deepens in its appeal from track to track and listen to listen. Rundle is clearly an indispensable talent in the modern scene of adventurous singer/songwriters that deserves heaps of praise and listeners’ undivided attention.