The group Engineers return with the album Always Returning, their fourth effort. Problematically, for a record from a band that up to now has had limited access to the U.S. market, it is difficult to gauge their growth. Specific to this album, the band is practically all-new with longtime multi-instrumentalist Mark Peters being joined by drummer Mark Linley and keyboardist Ulrich Schnauss, so Always Returning acts as a sort of debut for an established entity.
The presence of this iteration couldn’t be more welcomed, especially on the prog-centric K Scope record label. Since the late-1990s, prog rock has leaned more toward the heavy, due in no small part to the ascendance of Tool, Porcupine Tree, and even Mastodon. The more contemplative side of progressive on the other hand has veered toward classic rock territory (The Flower Kings and Transatlantic). Always Returning manages to reclaim electronic washes and tones without sounding either like modern electronic or like classic rock proxies. While classified as “dreampop” or “shoegaze” generally, both those descriptions are going to throw people off the trail unnecessarily. This is not about hushed vocals over monstrous waves of feedback-laden guitars, even as Peters’ vocals are consistently rendered in whispered tones.
The opening track, “Bless The Painter” vaguely recollects Radiohead’s ticky percussion from “Paranoid Android” with a bed of melodic synths to pin it down from floating away. Midway through the record, “Smiling Away” suggests a softer but slightly buzzing side from The Clientele or even Beck a’la Morning Phase. “A Million Voices” puts one in the mind of ’80s synth rock without some of the more obnoxious side-effects inherent in that form. (I lived through it, so I have the right to criticize it!)
This is probably not the best album to go for long drives with, thanks to the hypnotic sound and chilled-out & spaced-out tones. The instrumental piece “Smoke and Mirrors” is much more about mood than a specific melody and it very easy to lean back and get lost in it. The record is, however, the kind one might pop on during a chilly autumnal Sunday morning, hanging out with someone you love on the couch. That might sound like a kind of slam against Engineers and what they’ve pulled together here. For people looking for harder, more anxious fare, you may not appreciate the blissed-out atmosphere. For most of us though, living in times where it is nothing but non-stop anxiety, Always Returning is a big, breathy relief.