May Our Chambers Be Full by Emma Ruth Rundle and ThouRelease date: October 30, 2020
Label: Sacred Bones Records
One of the particular highlights of the 2019 instalment of Roadburn was its Artist in Residence – Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s Thou. They were following a year prior having been a monumental one for themselves as a band: a true ‘moment’ that saw the unit gain some serious attention from a much wider and far more diverse slice of the music community. Thou had always been notable, but 2018 felt like it was their year.
Having always been incredibly prolific the band had entered a short fallow time before those twelve months resulted in an explosion of new material; a full-length album ‘proper’ in the form of the infallible Magus, following from 2014’s Heathen, as well as an acoustic album (Inconsolable), a jaw-dropping EP (Rhea Sylvia) and another album that saw them experimenting in noise and drone far more than ever before (The House Primordial). If that wasn’t enough, they also dropped splits with Ragana and The HIRS Collective, as well as a live cassette.
Their Artist in Residency at Roadburn seemed like the natural continuation of this run of notoriety – and they grabbed it with all the hands they had at their disposal. They performed five times; an electric set, an acoustic one, a set full of covers and their surprise fifth, held at the skatepark immediately went down in Tilburg lore as the stuff of legend. The other, not aforementioned, was a collaborative set with none other than Emma Ruth Rundle. She, herself, had enjoyed a notable 2018, releasing On Dark Horses to critical acclaim; a deeply personal record, as so much of Emma’s work is, and that haunted the dreams – both waking and in sleep – of many listeners and lovers of her sound from around the globe.
To hear that Thou and ERR had joined forces for a collaborative set immediately excited the music scene that orbits Roadburn’s jawing event horizon. When it became understood that this would be original material, anticipation reached dizzying heights. The performance, needless to say, was absolutely glorious and the room it was played in, despite its vast size, was absolutely packed to the rafters. If there was one downside to the set it was that I was deeply uncomfortable during much of it purely due to how many people had forced themselves to bear witness to what promised – and proved – to be a mesmerising set!
Almost immediately afterwards, the question was inevitably raised… When was this vibrant, unusual collaboration going to find its way to our collective ears in recorded form, then? Eighteen months later, Sacred Bones and the two artists have answered, acquiesced, and we are presented with seven songs and nearly forty minutes of material in the form of May Our Chambers Be Full.
The record opens with the weighty seven minute song ‘Killing Floor’. It should be noted that this LP is not Emma with a heavier backing band, or Thou with a new main vocalist, or anything of the sort – this is truly a close collaboration between artists who, although very different, share a love for dark, evocative music and have a deep respect for one another. Indeed, this album quickly uncovers their similar DNA, their musical ancestry, for want of a better phrase. It is no secret that both share a distinct love for 90s alternative rock and in many ways, it is in this space that May Our Chambers Be Full chooses to revel in the most. There are passages that nod to the folk and post-punk vibes of Emma’s solo material and there are some towering, bone crushing moments of utter doom to savour from the Thou stable of sludge-hewn horrors. The album perhaps sounds like a natural successor to Rhea Sylvia but with a focus unparalleled in either artists discography. It may have some grunge inflections, but this is by no means laissez-faire at all, but is ultimately artistically rigorous, with each song on the album meticulously written.
‘Monolith’ shows the punkier side Thou have typically reserved for small 7” splits in years past, with KC Stafford’s unmistakable vocal timbre in trademark semi-sung, semi-spoken style. What is completely unexpected in how utterly catchy and head-nodding it is. A real earworm. Emma is heard least on this track, but there’s some guitar work that is unmistakably hers, juxtaposing with the crunch of the three guitars of Thou, as Brian Funck screams mercilessly, seemingly taking deranged delight in dragging his vocal cords over gravel and broken glass as the song closes.
‘Out of Existence’ is a highlight on the LP with Emma, ever the post-everything chameleon, singing with wild abandon, and sounding utterly gorgeous, as Thou push the boundaries of sludge by packaging it within the constraints of a ridiculously catchy rock song. Brian deliriously screams into the void and feels swallowed by the murk at the track’s sudden heart-stopping denouement. It’s truly a joy to listen to, all the while sounding delicate and arresting, as well as being formed into the shape of a sledgehammer. The marriage of the arrestingly sublime with the dark forbidden forces of the bottomless swamp is something the two artists have found and then balanced to perfection on this collaboration. It’s something to behold. Two misfits of the alternative and extreme music scenes have combined, intertwined and wove a quilt of devastating beauty.
May Our Chambers Be Full is an album bookended by longer tracks, but the remainder of the record fly at the listener in three and four minute bursts. Due to the anticipation of longer, drawn out tracks due to the Baton Rough doom titan’s involvement, these songs have a disorientating effect. Existential dread rises not from an endless morass, but from the repeated emotional punches they and Rundle deliver time and again. ‘Ancestral Recall’ is achingly alluring one moment and unholy in its heaviness the next. This juxtaposition in lesser hands would have been too much, have felt forced, have simply not worked… And yet here it feels strangely natural and somehow, mind-bogglingly, effortless. Like Soundgarden having fun with Neurosis in a rehearsal space, or Nine Inch Nails remixing and Reznor insinuating himself within a YOB epic, this album is the stuff of dreams – or your favourite nightmare – if you are so perversely inclined.
‘Magikal Cost’ is yet another standout moment on an album, despite all tracks being deserving of that particular statement. It’s a haunting moment on the record, with its slow burn beginning, teasing towards a vertigo-inducing drop. It plays and toys with the listener, the guitars delightful, until the hammer finally falls. And oh, does it drop! It’s a fearsome moment with Funck sounding otherworldly, before it slips back into a massive groove that hardly makes sense musically and yet is instantly and utterly awe-inspiring. An orgasm of dark, emotionally wrought, extreme sound, ‘Magikal Cost’ is a jaw-dropping moment. Cushion your chin, though. There’s more to come…
We are then treated into ‘Into Being’, yet another incredible song from the seven musicians who make up this magical collaboration. You can hear the sheer hard work that has been put into this album. It’s self-evident that at times the two outsider artist’s sounds should not work together – and yet they have made it work. It’s not forced, there has been no compromise found. It is seven songs that have been tirelessly composed, orchestrated and tested to destruction so that they become. Like a metallic spiritual prayer, ‘Into Being’ calls to the spirit to bind to the physical… The track us euphoric, tragic, plaintive and of the divine. It’s a track that raises the emotional bar of what has already proved to be a deeply moving and arresting piece of work. It turns out this is only to ready us for one more step: ‘The Valley’.
The closing track to May Our Chambers Be Full is the epic of the album, falling just shy of nine minutes. Emma and the members of Thou have captured lightning in a bottle here – ‘The Valley’ captures that rare spine tingle and the goosebumps that follow when you are at a gig and realise you’re watching something truly special, maybe one-off, and potentially defining for you, for the artist, for the venue, for the scene, for all… It will undoubtedly be one of the best songs you hear in 2020. It is an imperious way to close a spellbinding album.
May Our Chambers Be Full is a record that unveils its beauty, its depths and its darkness early on, but is also a record that rewards those that linger, who return, who swim in its swirling black waters of wish, wane and woe… There’s so much to explore in this finely textured yet oblique landscape that has been expertly etched into memory, sadness and the vast unknowing. Emma’s gossamer like voice and gentle, yet utterly unique guitar interplay so delicately yet robustly among the seething power and titanic gravity Thou so expertly wield. The production of the record is about as perfect as one could possibly hope for to aid in this seemingly disparate collaboration – brilliantly translucent and sharp at one moment and then hazy and drenched in gloom the next.
Yet another towering achievement in both artists’ discography to date, May Our Chambers Be Full, despite its implicit otherness and being far lighter in touch, is most certainly the best collaboration Thou have been a part of thus far (and they have been part of some stunning collaborations in the past). Some may dislike some of the song structuring, seeing it as the old post-metal critique of “quiet-loud; soft-heavy,” but this would be futile opprobrium; after all, their common ground – alt. rock and grunge – uses that very formula to stunning effect, as do so many. This LP is utterly masterful in its songcraft – two artists who deal in the dark arts, turning their eye to a sound more familiar, before hollowing it from the inside and injecting it with their own warped yet similarly catchy and gorgeous aesthetics. May Our Chambers Be Full may at first feel like an odd listen, but it is endless rewarding, and, as it drags you into its own world, becomes ever more awe-inspiring.