THOU — The Helm Of Sorrow (with Emma Ruth Rundle) (review)

THOU — The Helm Of Sorrow (with Emma Ruth Rundle) album cover EP · 2021 · Sludge Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
Something I’ve always loved about Emma Ruth Rundle is her versatility and willingness to do whatever the hell she wants musically. She's done everything from ambient to folk to doom to sludge to post rock to just about everything in between, and pretty much every project she’s brought her style to has flourished and succeeded in its own way. Whether it be her unique guitar work in post-rock group Red Sparowes or her more mellow folk-laden solo work, her greatest idiosyncrasy as a songwriter is the fact that her career never becomes static. Case in point: collaborating with Thou. On paper, it seems like a strange combination; I can’t think of a band Rundle has worked with that’s more crushing and intense than Thou, and you’d almost expect the latter’s sludgy riffs to be at odds with her singing and playing style. But such is not the case, as the “beauty-meets-brutality” aesthetic is exactly what makes this project work.

The Helm of Sorrow is an excellent continuation of the sound Rundle and Thou built together with last year’s May Our Chambers Be Full, still keeping with the latter’s melding of sorrow and intensity. The biggest thing that this collaboration benefits from is the members’ keen sense of dynamics; the music is meticulously composed to account for all the right emotional peaks and valleys, as is important for a lot of doom and post metal. In fact, opener “Orphan Limbs” is almost entirely based around Rundle singing cleanly over soft droning passages, whose guitar is reminiscent of Red House Painters’ brand of slowcore (Down Colorful Hill in particular). Only at roughly the last minute does the band erupt in a volcano of steamrolling guitars and shrieking vocals, and the long buildup just heightens the resonance of the payoff. This is the first time on the entire album we hear this level of intensity, and the slow build within the grim ambiance effectively keeps you on edge the whole time. But this isn’t the only way the dynamics of the record are experimented; “Crone Dance” is pretty much unceasing in its ferocity, and yet Rundle’s lovely vocal inflections add a strange melodicism to such an unrelenting series of sludge riffs. It helps, too, that the guitar tone is absolutely incredible here; it strikes a wonderfully odd middle ground between violent and textured, so you get something that’s equal parts harsh and compelling. And when Rundle and Bryan Funck start singing together on the remaining two tracks “Recurrence” and “Hollywood" (the latter being a Cranberries cover), it starts bringing to mind a certain approach that quickly got run into the ground in a lot of gothic metal: the “beauty-and-the-beast” approach. But I find there’s a difference here, as it feels like it’s done much more in service to the atmosphere rather than to be gimmicky. The downcast riffs are constantly emitting a sense of despair while the mix of clean and harsh vocals brings that perfect balance of sadness and anger; it really feels like I’m listening to “She Painted Fire Across the Skyline Pt. 1” by Agalloch again for the first time.

At this point, it surprises me a bit that Emma Ruth Rundle hasn’t been fully brought onboard as a member of Thou yet. Their respective approaches to these records seem meant for each other, and it’s a wonderful feeling when styles that are normally meant to clash can be brought together so beautifully. Let’s hope we can get another full-length of this kind of music, because 21 minutes - even for an EP - simply feels too short for how great the material is.
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