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Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou - The Helm of Sorrow (Album Review)

Tuesday, 19 January 2021 Written by Matt Mills

In June 2018, esoteric label Sacred Bones began its Alliance Series: an ongoing adventure involving two unrelated labelmates banding together and seeing what manner of unpredictability they can cook up. The range began when noise-rock enigmas Uniform and the Body joined forces for the acerbic ‘Mental Wounds Not Healing’. 

When it continued two years later, the run reemerged with an unmistakable jolt of ambition, as folk singer-songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle was paired with searing sludge metal nasties Thou. The resulting full-length, ‘May Our Chambers Be Full’, piqued curiosity. Curiosity quickly transformed into acclaim.

The album was a perfectly disjointed marriage of Rundle’s majestic vocals and the grungy quagmire of Thou riffs. It was the audial portrait of an angel emerging from a festering sinkhole. ‘The Helm of Sorrow’ is the surprise follow-up to ‘Chamber...’, closing this fruitful crossover with a four-song encore. 

Recorded during the same sessions as its predecessor, it maintains the captivating doom overtones and spaced-out grunge nods, but also walks new avenues of accessibility. The EP is bookended by its most dynamic cuts, Orphan Limbs and a cover of the Cranberries’ pensive stomper, Hollywood. 

The opener is an evolution from smooth arpeggios to post-metal savagery—one half A.A. Williams, the other Cult of Luna. Rundle’s versatility as a vocalist is on full display, beginning with familiar hums but concluding on manic shrieks that her tranquil solo material rarely utilises.

The cover, meanwhile, expands upon an already heartwrenching original. Rundle is the perfect Dolores O’Riordan substitute, deviating little from the Irish icon’s balance of softness and shouts. Thou switch to a clean guitar tone for the lamenting verses and add their own strained wails to the chorus, making for a twisted power ballad.

Between the two, Crone Dance and Recurrence feel much more straightforward, attacking with purer sludge metal ferocity. Both are graduates from the Tony Iommi school of slow, powerful riffing, emphasising filthy guitar tones over gloriously simplistic percussion. Yet, of the pair, it’s the former that shines brighter, deconstructing its constituent parts to the point of nothing but isolated chords midway through and then rebuilding for a mighty post-metal climax.

Combined, the tracks make ‘Helm...’ an ideal epilogue. The EP stays true to the intrigue and colossal nature of ‘Chambers...’, and cements their staying power by using those ingredients for a resonant reinterpretation. If, as some fear, this marks the end of the Emma Ruth Rundle/Thou team-up, then it’s concluded with consistency and grace.

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