Engineers - Always Returning Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothAlways Returning is a multi-faceted, philosophical puzzle with enough musical textures to keep both fans and musicians listening.

Always Returning
Artist: Engineers
Label: Kscope
Time: 10 tracks / 42:00 minutes

Always Returning is the fourth studio release from Mark Peters (vocals, guitars, bass, samples), who has now been composing under the “Engineers” moniker for a decade and four studio albums (Engineers, 2005; Three Fact Fader, 2009; In Praise of More, 2010; Always Returning, 2014).  Joining Peters on this release are Matthew Linley (drums) and Ulrich Schnauss (synths, keys), both of whom have been collaborating on Engineers projects since 2010, following a significant lineup change to the band.  Much as he did for Praise, Peters did the bulk of the writing and recording at his home studio, before Schnauss and Linley contributed.  The songwriting philosophy by which Peters operates is that “having that eureka moment for the first time [is what] makes music so exciting,” and so, in an attempt to preserve the sense of a live recording, the production of Always Returning involved very few rewrites or overdubs.  For that reason, Linley’s drums were recorded live in the space of a single day, and Schnauss’ parts likewise were not belabored. 

The band’s music contains the type of experimental ambiance that characterizes other acts signed to the Kscope label (i.e. The Pineapple Thief, iamthemorning, Anathema), a record company that purports itself as the herald of “post-progressive” music.  With an ambient/dream pop genre listing, the Engineers’ work is often compared to artists whose compositions contain the same hazy, ethereal qualities (Brian Eno, Freelance Whales, Rainbow Danger Club, etc).  Peters’ vocals are half-whispered and semi-spoken, recalling Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), and his guitar work is intentionally simplistic.  This approach allows the dream-like compositions to breathe, providing space for strong cohesion between all instruments employed.  Schnauss’ synth work elegantly complements Peters’ guitars, and Linley provides dynamic, rhythmic support, gluing the various pieces together.

The first track on the album, “Bless the Painter,” serves as an ample introduction to the Engineers’ multi-textural approach to composition: several guitar parts interwoven with synth layers, and supported by bass and drums.  Lyrically, the track is Peters’ account of witnessing tourists at an Amsterdam art gallery “holding their phones up to the artwork, just ticking off that they’d seen it rather than actually looking at it.”  This irony of modern “art appreciation” finds a voice on nearly every track on Always Returning, though it is this first track that particularly contrasts Peters’ self-awareness as an artist with the non-identity of the tasteless consumer.

“Fight or Flight” continues the general ambiance of the previous track, packaging its unvarying 4/4 groove in a psychedelic folk sound, with shimmering acoustic guitar at the forefront of the mix.  “It Rings So True,” the next tune, has an overall laid-back approach, relying entirely on plucked acoustic guitar for its rhythm.  While this is not an overtly dramatic shift from the previous songs, “Bless the Painter” certainly had a more restless, undergirding motion and “Fight or Flight” also had steady rhythmic presence, whereas “So True” floats more loosely in a sea of ambient synth.

Gentle cymbals and high-hat accompany Schnauss’ piano for the introduction of “Drive Your Car,” a track that swells dynamically into its refrains and sinks back into its languid verses.  The final, instrumental segment of the song contains a neat riff traded between a guitar emulator and the piano, before a pre-programmed synth patch swirls the track to its conclusion. 

“Innsbruck” is the first of two quality instrumental tracks on Always Returning.  This is a strongly rhythmic composition: guitars and synths structured against syncopated bass and drum stabs, interrupted by more straightforward “refrains.”  I really like the pace of “Searched for Answers,” the next track.  It grooves with a steady bass-line and synth, but remains within the ambient parameters of the album – adding a different texture but keeping in context.  “Smiling Back,” on the other hand, has the overall sentiment of a ballad, and strips away some of the synth layers and principally uses a more standard instrumentation: piano, bass, guitars, drums.

The backbone of “A Million Voices” is its driving bass, which moves in steady eighth notes for the song’s duration, with the exception of one or two slides and riff inserts.  Overlaying this, Schnauss’ arpeggio-based keyboard riff forms the main body of the composition, against a bed of distant string patches.  This piece might be my favorite on Always Returning, and not just because the title reminds me of Ben Kenobi’s line about Alderaan’s destruction.  There is good presence from all instruments in the mix, the melody is simple but memorable, and the instrumental final portion of the track allows for the atmospheric space that gives the Engineers’ music its ambient, experimental quality.

“Smoke and Mirrors,” the album’s second instrumental, introduces another textural shift.  Two keyboard parts, moving in contrary motion, form the crux of the piece, against which the clean tones of piano patches and guitar riffs clearly stand out.  Further synth additions toward the track’s conclusion continue to add layers of sound, until finally only the background ambience remains, ultimately fading out to silence.

The final song on the record is its title track as well as its longest composition, clocking in just over 6:00 minutes.  “Always Returning” has some nice interaction between synth and guitars, as well as a tight rhythmic unison between Peters’ voice and the overall instrumentation that is much more orchestrated on this final track than anywhere else on the album.  Piano and guitar fill gaps in the mix with simple but effective inserts, borrowing from one another and extrapolating upon the central musical themes.  After Peters’ final thought, “Some days can be never-ending / Sometimes an ending is all you’ve got,” the second half of the song becomes an extended instrumental – largely bass, guitar, and keys sharing a harmonic passage – which takes the song to its conclusion.

I’d be a hypocrite if I said an artist shouldn’t be an art critic.  By virtue of picking up a pen, a brush, or a guitar, the aspiring artist is communicating that the existing craft is not enough – that he also must contribute.  That being said, I sense a lot of preaching from Mark Peters’ work with the Engineers.  Thematically, Always Returning’s lyrical content draws heavily from his notion that the instant-gratification mentality of the modern generation has tarnished the purpose and quality of art.  As on previous releases, Peters again riffs on a music-for-music’s-sake theme, delving into the love of creating while simultaneously critiquing a world that values only sensation.  The band even used analog recording processors instead of software to record the majority of the album – both to give Always Returning’s music a vintage warmth as well as to consciously avoid modern means of music production.

While the truth Peters seeks to convey about artistic integrity is painfully accurate, a mantle worth donning, it also suffers from the same inevitable problem as did Nihilism and Dada: true belief in one’s own philosophy can only lead to martyrdom in the name of the cause, or to utter nonsense in the name of originality.  There’s only so much a patriot can do in the name of the cause: resisting the internet’s influence is career suicide, and gimmicks like vinyl-only releases in the name of musical purity only succeed if the band is already successful.  So, as much as I agree with the motivation, I struggle to appreciate the product, because the end result doesn’t hold up under the weight of its own incredible ambition.  Always Returning is certainly interesting, certainly enjoyable, and perhaps even unique.  But it isn’t really inspiring.

That being said, I don’t dislike anything about the album.  It’s a multi-faceted, philosophical puzzle, and it’s got enough musical textures to keep both fans and musicians listening.  There’s also an element of childlike wonderment about it.  Being principally focused on belief in artistry and creation, a process which possesses an innate innocence, it’s not terribly surprising or out of character for Peters’ tone in “Bless the Painter” to be disgusted with art hobbyists while, in “Smiling Back,” he deems every day a fantastic new opportunity to learn and to do.  At the same time, however, Always Returning is only loosely constructed at best, particularly due to Peters’ extemporaneous, stream-of-consciousness approach to songwriting.  There’s integrity, but while the big ideas are all there, the end result feels like the mere first draft of what might eventually become a really good argument.  Though they still bear the weight of intangible truth, the majority of the ideas are only semi-formed.  Always Returning hints, dreams, and hypothesizes, but the end result feels more like conjecture than a final statement.

Justin Carlton