The acclaimed hazy dreampop of Engineers has now been massaging our insatiable ears for over a decade since their 2003 formation. First came the eponymous debut (2005), icy shoegaze with melodies buried deep. Then Three Fact Fader appeared in 2009 after some label issues, this time with a little more reliance on electronica, most notably on single Clean Coloured Wire, a stunning track based on a loop taken from Harmonia’s Watussi from 1974. Then there was In Praise Of More from 2010, band member changes seeing keyboard maestro Ulrich Schnauss on board for a colourful and eventful collection.
Last year also saw a second collaboration between founding member Mark Peters and Schnauss (Tomorrow Is Another Day) released under their own names but it was largely a self-indulgent bore, only a single track providing some vocal distraction from the uninspiring soundscapes. So after predominantly being written at home in York by Peters, Always Returning arrives under a cloud of uncertainty – did the duo’s latest effort indicate a change of direction for the band also, or would they remain in the song based dreamy shoegaze field of old?
Almost entirely, thankfully, it’s the latter. A couple of ambient instrumental tracks are present (Innsbruck and Smoke And Mirrors) and these are, unsurprisingly, the least exciting on offer, but the remaining eight tracks make for an excellent album. Opener Bless The Painter is masterful: synths take on a lighter feel and an excellent guitar melody is clearly audible, something that would have been clouded by layers of shimmering fuzz in the past. A tinkly Giorgio Moroder like synth backdrop sweeps across single Fight Or Flight with sublime female vocals courtesy of Sophie McDonnell complementing Peters’ hushed tones to stunning effect; another superb but short guitar melody then adorns an instrumental break that aims for, and reaches, the heavens above – surely the direction this band need to gallop off into.
The slower, quietly minimal It Rings So True lacks edge but it’s still a mesmerising, acoustic led effort set to an atmospheric synth soundscape that recalls earlier material without being washed in shoegaze. Drive Your Car is another soft and gentle breeze through chiming synths before piano and subtle Krautrock percussion kick in.
The up tempo Searched For Answers is layered with soft lush textures, the ‘70s processors preferred for this recording prominently reinforcing Schnauss’ presence, a presence that is perhaps an ingredient that has now become a vital part of the band’s persona – a theory that Peters’ lyrics perhaps unwittingly support: “and now it’s time for me to realise the chemistry”. The piano led Smiling Back sounds like a watered down Pink Floyd effort for its guitar instrumental, but that’s all good, its soft bass and female backing vocal creating a wonderful, dreamy effort that attempts to soar via its chorus.
A faster motorik beat adorns A Million Voices for another highlight, this time built around a relatively constant spacey synth loop with driving bass and guitar riff injections producing dreampop magnificence. The title track and longest cut at over six minutes closes the collection to more minimalism. Again, male/female vocals are intertwined amongst a staccato synth soundscape that sees gentle piano added, a lengthy instrumental outro then creating an engaging piece reminiscent of some of Moby’s work, with hints of guitar and bass bubbling under the surface.
So somewhat of a crossroads, perhaps? If the ambience created by Peters and Schnauss as a duo starts muscling its way to the forefront more often then in all likeliness, they run the risk of alienating their fans. But if Peters’ songwriting remains the catalyst for future material, then it’s likely that their music will deservedly start to reach new ears. Always Returning is apparently named after Peters’ desire to continue the writing cycle over and over and on this evidence he should be forcibly urged to return post haste, just keep the ambience in check please guys.