The press sheet for the new self-titled release from Richmond, Virginia post-hardcore rockers Engine Down boasts of the album’s “potential for massive success on alternative and rock radio”. This type of success is certainly possible, if not probable, seeing that the band’s slickly produced slabs of brooding are just the sort of thing that the kids seem to go for. But what’s a little more surprising is that this push for prominence has been orchestrated by none other than Berkeley’s own bastion of everything punk, Lookout Records. Now I don’t have much room to talk—I gladly traded my punk cred for a daily bowl of Jeff Tweedy’s dingleberrys circa 2001—but I just assumed that the abstract concept of punk cred still existed. I guess I was wrong. I feel like there should have been more of a backlash against the mall-punk explosion of the mid-90s, but it seems as if everyone involved simply sniffed out the cash-in and went ahead full bore. I’m not bitter, it’s just that I flinch when I’m reminded of how much the ideals of my youth and music’s history are compromised by the economics of the recording industry. Must I constantly be smacked in the face by my own naiveté?
None of this makes Engine Down’s new record bad. In fact, I consider this record to be completely outside of the argument. I judge this work simply as the product of four guys blessed with the biggest recording budget they’ve ever seen. (It should be noted that despite its moniker, this is the band’s fourth proper album, the other three having been released by DC’s Lovitt Records. Can you say: new product launch?? The perfect record for back to school?? Text me.) Comparisons to popular artists such as Sparta and Thursday are apt, as is the fact that the record’s seed might find purchase on rock radio.
You need look no further than the opening track “Rogue” to see the potential. The production is obscenely dense. Brian McTernan (known for his work with Thrice, Hot Water Music, and The Movielife) certainly did his part. The bass comes out growling. It would take three or four drummers hitting at full strength to replicate the drum sound. The vocals are tinged with a dark distance that would seem to suggest to your average radio listener that the fellows in Engine Down are capable of hating both themselves and their ex-girlfriends. The guitars squeal with a very considered feedback before swallowing each other in a wall of sound. And, most importantly, the refrain of “I never thought I’d learn to accept the burns and walk away” is generic enough to encompass the full spectrum of anger. That being said, I like it. Maybe it’s that I’ve listened to enough Quicksand and At the Drive In in the past to ensure a special place in my heart for an angsty track like “Rogue”.
The same goes for another possible single, “Cover”. The beat is insistent. The band is tight. And the chorus hits just the right emotional level to ensure repeated listening. The album never strays far from formula, but that was never a strong suit for this type of music. The important thing is that the record maintains its intensity over the full run of play, which it does. The drums stay big and propulsive, especially in the opening moments of a track like “101”. Even an orchestrated number like “In Turn” ends up going for the throat after a couple minutes of semi-haunting melodrama. “The Walk In” even locks into a swell math rock groove, evoking a more direct reminder of the band’s past output. All in all, I wish the boys in Engine Down much success in their new endeavor. There even seems to be a little money for touring on the horizon. We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, I’ve got an idea for a run of punk themed Bibles I’d like to bounce off Lookout founder Lawrence Livermore. Text me, pal. We could make a fortune.