The music of Emma Ruth Rundle is nearly swallowed by darkness, but Rundle does not seem oppressed by it. Having toured with acts like Deafheaven and Earth, Rundle made her name performing mournful, minor key compositions, swelling with gothic drama. But to classify her music as macabre is to deny its cathartic, even uplifting qualities. On Marked for Death, the follow-up to 2014’s Some Heavy Ocean, Rundle upgrades that album’s gothic folk with a more colorful palette. Here, she strengthens the atmospheric guitar work that comprised her instrumental solo debut, Electric Guitar One, and enlivens her songs with anthemic, weightless choruses. And while her two previous solo releases, as well as her work in the noisy LA trio Marriages, set a precedent for Marked for Death’s more ambitious material, it doesn’t make the record feel any less thrilling. Each of its eight tracks showcase a songwriter testing the limits of her sound and redefining herself in the process.
As we have come to expect from Rundle, the lyrics throughout Marked for Death range from devastatingly beautiful to just plain devastating. The album follows a loose narrative about a doomed relationship, touching on themes of hopelessness and mortality. The opening title track introduces two fatalistic lovers, with Rundle asking a series of questions that progresses from “Who else is going to love someone like you that’s marked for death?” to simply, “Who else would ever stay?” In the following track, Rundle is wrestling with the sacrifices of commitment, detailing an inherent power struggle and loss of identity (“I am worthless in your arms/But you offer this protection no one else is giving me”). It’s unquestionably heavy material, and, in these two tracks, the music is built to carry the load. The guitars are crushing, approaching shoegaze levels of fuzz, while the rhythm remains slow and insistent.
After the lumbering introductory tracks, the tension breaks in “Medusa.” Rundle’s voice, clear and calm, soars like the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan in the song’s inscrutable refrain. The album’s finest moments are crafted in this mold, settling on a style of slow-building, otherworldly balladry that invoke the early days of 4AD. In “Heaven,” Rundle’s greatest work yet, she sings over a quietly escalating storm of strings, fingerpicked guitars, and militant percussion. By the time the song climaxes with Rundle bellowing, “I can see fire… I can see in heaven,” you are right there with her. Gorgeous and unsettling,“Heaven” feels like the culmination of all of Rundle’s best work, boasting the record’s most gratifying melody as well as its gothiest couplet. “The only church I’ll ever know is in the Earth,” she sings, “The ground below me says ‘Come home now.’”
Like Some Heavy Ocean, Marked for Death also closes with a sparse solo piece– just Rundle’s voice, electric guitar, and the lo-fi hum of her amplifier. But while Ocean’s “Living With the Black Dog” was a dark admission of hopelessness, “Real Big Sky” feels like a transcendent turning point. Rundle calls back to the lingering question in the album’s opening track (“Who else would ever stay?”), but now finds her narrator faced with new revelations– no longer fearing death, but keeping a light on to welcome it. It’s a staggering performance, with Rundle’s voice alternately quivering and soaring. In the song’s music video, she introduces the track with a grand statement: “I don’t think there’s anything more exhilarating than seeing natural beauty… Seeing something that there aren’t words for.” Marked for Death finds Rundle grappling with elements beyond her control, but she’s closer than ever to becoming her own force of nature.