Review Summary: A quiet victory
Engineers have been quietly tinkering away in the background of the music scene with their discrete dream-pop and shoegaze sounds for over a decade. Their music has been broadcast on television screens on both sides of the Atlantic, from shows like Top Gear to Gavin & Stacy to Big Love, yet have flew quietly under everyone's radar. Until recently, that is, when they signed to progressive record label Kscope – and as you'd might expect, the progressive sound has rubbed off a bit on their latest efforts in Always Returning
, and twinned with a change in line-up has resulted in Engineers' strongest record to date.
The latest permanent addition to the band is established electronic artist Ulrich Schnauss – although lead vocalist and guitarist Mark Peters and Ulrich have collaborated prior to Always Returning
(Ulrich even appearing in Engineers' previous album In Praise of More
), the album is wholly written by Peters. This may sound like a cause for concern, yet despite the single-mindedness in terms of songwriting, the album is subtly varied whilst allowing each song to be seamlessly coherent with the rest. From the bouncy pop tunes of 'Searched for Answers' and 'A Million Voices' to the chilled ballad-esque 'Smiling Back' and the relatively hard-hitting rock opener 'Bless the Painter, the album is far from stagnant; and despite each song sounding familiar, it is this familiarity that is one of the factors that makes the album so comforting. Unlike Engineers' Kscope siblings, this album focuses more on creating an atmosphere of pleasantness rather than progressions, but by no means does that imply that Always Returning
has none. Most songs have similar verse-chorus structures, but the instrumental breaks nearing each songs' outros bring an unexpected and enjoyably subtle shift in the songs direction.
The use of melodic instrumentation is quite thorough yet retains the band's simplistic approach – countless sounds from different instruments wash in and out of each ear relentlessly to create simple, charming melodies one second and counter melodies the next. This is perhaps best displayed in the instrumental 'Innsbruck', where attention shifts from pianos, guitars and synthesizers in a heartbeat. There is very little area in this album which one can permanently focus on in terms of instrumental melody as it's ever changing, yet this lack of permanence makes the album all the more liquid and ethereal. Schnauss' arsenal of synthetic sounds create a soft backdrop to each song, yet even then they begin to interfere and disrupt with themselves, forming rich, layered atmospheric sounds. Always Returning
is prevented from dissipating into the air with down-to-earth bass riffs and drum beats; both of which are simplistic enough to avoid causing distraction yet still remain interesting. Yet even this foundation faces impermanence in the outro to 'Always Returning' in that these rhythm instruments begin to mirror the melodies produced by the rest of the band.
Peters stated that he wanted to make Always Returning
with a 'sense of mystery'; this aim for ambiguity is certainly displayed through unresolved melodic focus and full atmospheric sounds, but is also achieved through the use of androgynous vocals. Nearly everything sung by the relatively deep-voiced Peters is counter-balanced with soothing angelic vocals from guest musician Sophie McDonnell, which certainly sets Always Returning
apart from Engineers' previous works. In addition to these layers of vocals, multiple layers of Peters' vocals are often panned in each side adding to the already established ambiance. Ambiguity is further built upon with Peters' lyricism, perhaps epitomized best in the chorus of the title track: 'some things you get by just asking/something you get if you ask or not/some things can be never ending/sometimes an ending is all you've got'
. This simplicity and impartiality in lyricism occurs throughout the whole album, which can either be interpreted as the album having no deep meaning, or quite conversely as being so much more.
Some may argue that what this album really needed was writing input from Schnauss, but work written by both Schnauss and Peters already exists and Always Returning
does perfectly fine without it. This album is not groundbreaking nor is there anything considerably mind blowing about it both conceptually or instrumentally, but it is a wholly polished and enjoyable album that plays to the bands strengths extremely well. It is the soundtrack to a comforting dream; like a feeling of inertia, shifting in and out between fantasy and reality when waking up in the morning. They say that life begins at the end of your comfort zone, yet listening to Always Returning
brings comfort wherever you go - and that's more than fine by me.