Album Review: Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – The Helm of Sorrow

[Sacred Bones; 2021]

May Our Chambers Be Full, the collaborative album between goth-folk singer-songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle and sludge-metal outfit Thou, was one of the stellar albums of 2020. Combining sinister yet melodic hooks, muddy riffs, and a virtuosic sense of dynamics, the partnership offered a stunning seven-track set. Rundle’s mercurial moans alongside Bryan Funck’s shocking snarls yielded one of rock’s distinctly iconoclastic and hypnotically disturbing vocal alloys.

The Helm of Sorrow is a companion EP to Chambers that was originally included in the ‘diehard edition’, but the project is now being released as a separate but presumably complementary sequence. While each of the four tracks proficiently highlights Rundle and Thou’s individual strengths, the songs mostly fall short of the creative and expressive commingling breathtakingly displayed on Chambers. That is, the two styles rarely approach full integration. Additionally, Rundle’s and Funck’s vocals, transcendently interwoven on Chambers, are only intermittently melded here – and then imprecisely, with the exception, perhaps, of the final track “Hollywood”. In this way, The Helm of Sorrow largely echoes templates better illustrated in Rundle’s various solo projects, including 2018’s On Dark Horses, and Thou’s recent work, particularly 2014’s Heathen and 2018’s Magus.

The introductory track “Orphan Limbs” commences with a chorus-y guitar part, Rundle offering a quasi-operatic vocal that brings to mind her Sargent House labelmate Chelsea Wolfe. Around the four-minute mark, Thou crashes jarringly into the mix, Funck’s demonic vocals torching through a wall of distorted guitars, bass, and drums. The track occurs as a diptych of sorts, the first four minutes featuring Rundle, the closing minute-and-a-half spotlighting Thou, the two styles notably disjoined.

“Crone Dance” opens as if in mid-crescendo, the listener immediately barraged. As the song progresses, Rundle enters and exits, her and Funck’s voices unevenly blended. Shortly before the three-minute mark, a wiry riff à la mid-oeuvre Neurosis serves as a bridge of sorts, followed by more pound-and-shriek courtesy of Thou. “Recurrence” is essentially a Thou song, and possibly one worthy of inclusion on a representative playlist; that said, it neither approximates nor strives for the sublime gestalts and magical hybridization of Rundle and Thou as captured on Chambers.

The project closes with a cover of The Cranberries’ 1996 song “Hollywood”, which is the highpoint on the EP. While the piece still lacks the majesty captured on Chambers, it draws attention to Thou’s knack for thunderous soundscapes and Rundle’s facility for eloquent vocals. “Hollywood” also includes moments during which Rundle’s and Funck’s voices are merged to better effect, hinting at Chambers’ dramatic motif: a wounded angel in existential isolation doing a duet with a maniacal dervish spoon-fed on horror metal.

For those who regard May Our Chambers Be Full as a contemporary gem, The Helm of Sorrow will occur as one of rock’s anticlimaxes. One shouldn’t ignore the winning elements of this release and how the contributing artists’ gifts are alternately put on center stage, but if Chambers is the benchmark for this combo, then one has to point out that what rendered it near-perfect; namely, the seamless synthesis of styles and energies, is on the whole absent here. It’s a lesson that has to be stomached and stomached again: some magic only happens once – and inexplicably at that. To expect a repeat is to flirt with delusion.