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Engine Down still flying strong

Observer Scene | Thursday, September 9, 2004

The four strapping lads from North Carolina who comprise Engine Down have been honing their skills on the indie rock scene for some time. They have toured extensively, opened for a number of high-profile acts and have quickly matured into one of the most consistent and inspiring live shows around, further enhanced by their own lighting setup. To date Engine Down has graced listeners with three excellent albums, an EP, several seven-inch records, and now this, their fourth full-length – arguably their best yet.The band kicks things off with the explosive opener “Rogue, ” an ode to the power of resilience. Bass and drums leap into action immediately, establishing the rhythmic momentum carrying through more or less the duration of the album’s 12 tracks. Enter lead and rhythm guitar, clanging and shrieking in call and response fashion before quickly falling in step with the pile-driving rhythm. Cue the excellent, emotive lead vocals of guitarist Keeley Davis, soon joined in vocal harmony by guitarist Jonathan Fuller. “I never thought I’d learn / to accept the burns / and walk away,” muses Keeley. By the song’s climax, the lyric has evolved into the imperative: “Learn to accept the burns.”Falling somewhere in the vast gray between deadpan hardcore and drown-in-your-own-tears emo, Engine Down produces an enticing brand of brooding, progressive indie rock music. Along with “Rogue,” other superb tracks include “Cover,” “101,” “Well Read” and the mini-epic, piano-centered closer, “Etcetera.”To its credit, Engine Down functions exceptionally well as a group. The interplay between rhythm and melody, as well as among guitars, indicate an accomplished group of musicians – and best friends – who have been clearly playing together for a long time. The arrangements are tight and the four players seldom venture out alone musically, lending the album a constant sense of fullness.Lyrically, Engine Down staggers slightly. The words flow well enough and complement the melodies rather nicely, but ultimately ring hollow in some instances. Many songs seem marred by a preponderance of unspecified pronouns. Who are the we’s, you’s, and even I’s addressed in these verses? One never finds out. Through these 12 tracks, not a single proper noun appears. While such vagaries can aid in universalizing a song’s content, here they often succeed only in creating an atmosphere of quasi-philosophical detachment. Passive voice also rears its dastardly, disfigured face into several of these songs, undermining the driving rhythm and guitar tension. Apart from the excellent music, the listener is sometimes left with little to hold on to after hearing these songs.In addition, while startlingly consistent and flowing together seamlessly, “Engine Down” does suffer somewhat from a lack of variety. The majority of the tracks follow the same pattern of building to a harmonized chorus, and all of the songs (sans a one-off interlude entitled “Too Much of a Good Thing”) tightly straddle the four-minute line. Indeed only one dares to cross this line. Perhaps Engine Down could have exchanged a few of its crisp endings for more drawn-out and emotionally resonant instrumental breakdowns.All things considered, however, “Engine Down” is a superb record from a band that will continue to improve and refine their already distinct sound. For those who want the intensity of hardcore without bludgeoning their eardrums, and the sentimentality of emo without the whiny sciolism, Engine Down serves up the perfect platter.