Listening to music can be a drawn out enough process that reviewing a band’s new record is sometimes as much about figuring out the last album as it is grappling with this one, especially when the new one doesn’t quite compare to past efforts. So I give credit to London shoegazers Engineers’ new In Praise of More (a sardonic title for an album that’s nearly 20 minutes shorter than its predecessor) for making me finally and fully appreciating its immediate predecessor, 2009’s gorgeous and brawny Three Fact Fader. There are a couple of obvious potential reasons for In Praise of More’s relative slightness. This time there was no three-year gap between albums, and while adding German ambient maestro Ulrich Schnauss on keyboards is a good fit in both theory and practice, this is still a band that recently lost its rhythm section.
“What It’s Worth” opens the album with an acoustic guitar and some of Schnauss’ impressively weightless synthesizer work. It’s pretty, but it feels almost like it’s going to float away. While In Praise of More occasionally rouses itself to something more propulsive (especially on “Subtober”, a grinding, faintly menacing song strongly reminiscent of Three Fact Fader’s great “Song for Andy”), that’s generally the way things go here. Songs like “Las Vega” and “To an Evergreen” are as light as feathers, even when a drum machine or echoed guitar kick in, and the title track manages to stand out mainly be virtue of doing an atypically clumsy job of integrating Schnauss’ bleeps with the rest of the band. Three Fact Fader is great because it added mass and muscle to a band that had already proven it could do pretty melodies—returning to airier climes wasn’t really where they needed to go.
Of course, maybe I wouldn’t judge In Praise of More so (relatively) harshly if I wasn’t already a fan of the band’s work. This is still rapturous music, richly textured and simultaneously more direct and more adventurous than most of their brethren. Listeners who preferred Engineers’ self-titled debut to Three Fact Fader might even consider this a minor return to the hushed, beatific atmosphere of that record. And it’s a fine album, but between then and now, Engineers have proved themselves to be a band capable of summoning up the same feelings and atmosphere in a more emphatic and powerful way. The band ends the album with the instrumental, barely there “Nach Hause”, which is about as exciting as any four minutes of wind noises, faint talking, and piano are likely to be. On a more substantial release, it might be a necessary cool down, but here it feels like tacked-on filler.
There’s an EP of fine material here, from the lovely “What It’s Worth” to the churning, growling guitars and sweetly melodic vocals of “Press Rewind”, and maybe that’s what In Praise of More should have been. Engineers are still an interesting band with a good grasp of their frequently gorgeous sound, and given the personnel turmoil in the group recently, In Praise of More seems like more of a detour than a dead end. Wherever the band goes from here, it feels as if Three Fact Fader is the pinnacle of their first stage, and In Praise of More is an interim effort, or maybe an attempt to clear the decks. Worse bands than this one have made bigger missteps and come back stronger than before, so for now, we can just appreciate the core of good songs and wait for the next record.