Engineers’ first full-length is an early frontrunner for the UK album of the year.
For almost as long as there has been rock music, there have been likeminded young British 20-somethings at its controls, exploring the profundity of excessive drug use in order to enhance their musical creativity and expression. Though this approach often results in albums of unfocused sound lacking tight songs at the core or disastrously indulgent sonic experimentation (i.e. Pink Floyd’s non-Dark Side output and much of the remaining bulk of ‘70s prog), Engineers get it right by taking note of the current rock environment and determining from the onset exactly how they want their drug-inspired willpower to change its course. And it doesn’t take a toke or two to recognize how they succeed, because first and foremost, Engineers is a stunning melodic achievement, matching great songs with beds of lush, intimate sound, to which you can wake up, daydream, cool down, or tune out.
Perhaps Engineers might have been better titled From Trad Rock to Nü-Gaze in Eleven Easy Steps. What separates the band from the retro shoegaze stylings of the now defunct Stratford 4 or general Brit-‘90s tribute bands like Lansing-Dreiden and the Delays is a continued extension of all that has happened since the era they invoke. In conjuring the past while making modern pop music, Engineers remember to take note of all that has changed in the interim. As such, their sound actually develops out of the soporific melodies of the many post-Oasis Brit-rock bands of the past ten years, especially the mellow, unadorned tunefulness of groups like Starsailor and Travis. Ultimately, though, Engineers strive to sound like no one else, and they’ve accomplished such a feat by boldly stepping out of time and place to acquaint a new audience with the flavor of something old: a healthy, hazy dose of Chapterhouse, Catherine Wheel, and early Spiritualized. They bring forward only the best of both exhausted styles, immediately demonstrating their efficiency with spacious lullabies, ably singing the entire world into a gentle, peaceful bliss. It will prove itself a model for new bands to follow.
Despite the even-handed, slow pace of the individual songs, and the strong evidence of the tail end of a musical style that represents the least adventurous era of British rock since the early ‘60s, Engineers is never boring. In fact, by placing Simon Phipps’ soothing voice front and center, and more importantly, keeping it untreated, the band avoids the manufactured, detached “edge” that has become synonymous with the alt-rock of the Oughts, while simultaneously establishing a warm, open presence in a context known for burying its vocalists. The result is refreshing. And though nothing beyond the dreamy loveliness of the atmosphere will hit the listener over the head, differences between each of the songs on Engineers—while subtle—do reveal significance in the sequencing. Top-loaded with one memorable single after the next, the album begins at its most palatable and with the fewest foreign elements, gracefully and gradually introducing the noisier guitar elements of shoegaze as it goes along.
“Home”, the opening track and debut single, could almost be Travis, if they’d taken the ‘70s dirt-hippie route after their landmark Byrds-influenced “Coming Around” single a few years back. Its harmonies are rich but its feel remains grounded and familiar. Originally its flipside, the standout “New Horizons” is utterly gorgeous, overlaying a definitive melody (seriously, this one stays with you for days) with an equally effective counterpoint. You’ll want to draft a friend to sing it with you just so you can appreciate the complementary parts in a celebratory duet. Meanwhile, the cyclical nature of the song recalls Elbow’s melodic approach (e.g. “Any Day Now”), further connecting Engineers’ sound to that of current acts.
The newest single “Forgiveness” brings in harmonic guitar by the end, which rings and throbs like stadium-era Cure. It signals sounds yet to come. The song makes an encore appearance here from last year’s Folly EP, along with the album’s best track, “Come In Out of the Rain”, which boasts a dramatic, soaring chorus (like the best of the class of ‘91) and an uplifting message. (Curiously, said message is intentionally squandered in the song’s disturbing video. Rendered in a crude, acid-fried animation style, the clip tells the story of a young homeless junkie sort who witnesses a stroke of strange fortune that brings about an epiphany. He steals a car and heads off in search of his dubious, and unsettlingly sinister, fate. Needless to say, our hero is hardly redeemed. It must be seen to be believed.)
Sandwiched amongst all these gems is the even better “Let’s Just See”, which ups the electronics quotient considerably, calling to mind the trippy darkness of Doves’ detail-enhanced Lost Souls. By taking what sounds like a complex break-beat pattern and slowing it down to the usual tempo, the song becomes alluring and otherworldly in a way that the other songs barely hinted. The keyboard sequences on top of this are either treated heavily or perhaps even backward. More electronics are isolated in “Peter Street”, a brief drone that nevertheless deserves its spotlight, physically dividing the album, after which the fuzzier guitar elements of shoegaze begin to act up more prominently. The moving “How Do You Say Goodbye?” veers deceptively back to easygoing melody before knocking you flat with guitar outbursts in the song’s latter half. And finally, defying the album’s potentially obvious use as a sleeping aid, the churning noise that overtakes the end of “One in Seven” would certainly reverse any coma the remainder of the album may have induced.
Engineers hail from Wigan, best known as the hometown of the Verve. But Engineers might as well be the Anti-Verve, for just as Richard Ashcroft & Co. emerged from a cloudy fuss to produce some reasonably timeless classic rock, now Engineers are emerging from a dry spell of undecorated balladeering to stir up some swirly clouds and make the British skies turbulent again. Engineers offer a purposeful remedy for the eighties overkill that has swallowed up the current alternative scene, and, along with their not-as-different-as-you-think-they-are compatriots in Kasabian, they finally put the Brits back on the map for something other than the bloodless crowd pleasing of Coldplay and Keane.
// Notes from the Road
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