Engine Down – S/T

Richmond, Virginia-based quartet Engine Down is a model act for rock-band evolution. The band started with the DIY ethic, playing basements and releasing 7″ splits. Progress hasn’t exactly been slow; the band’s formation was only in 1996. Now these guys have signed onto a new label (Lookout! Records) and toured with acts popular as Thursday. Positive profiles in Alternative Press magazine are another accomplishment the band enjoyed in 2004.

With its debut CD, Under the Pretense of the Present Tense, Engine Down offered volatile Drive Like Jehu-esque guitars with angst-ridden screams. This hardcore influence is understandable considering guitarist Jonathan Fuller was fresh out of Sleepytime Trio. The following three full-length progressively refined the band’s sound. Each of Engine Down’s releases sound more focused, and this self-titled release completes the pattern.

On Demure, the precursor to Engine Down, the band’s trademark brooding introductions were abundant. On Engine Down, the band abandon the drawn-out nature right from the getgo. Demure‘s “Songbird” was five-plus minutes of guitar exploration and wandering vocals. The rhythm opens casually by its lonesome, with drummer Cornbread Compton sporting a maraca in one hand. In contrast, “Rogue” (opener of this self-titled album) bursts in with pounding drums, a fat bass line, and anthemic choruses. The band’s style has clearly altered, but the transition is graceful, making Engine Down another enjoyable release. Brian McTernan’s glossy production method and the more poppy style could give cynics something to cry about, but McTernan has successfully produced bands like Texas is the Reason and Thursday, and Engine Down gets equally memorable treatment.

The energetic “Pantomime” off Demure became a fan favorite with its blasting riffs and a popular show opener. No other song on Demure instantly begins as intensely. Engine Down seemingly took the “Pantomime” blueprint to base the self-titled album on. The new batch of songs are compact and embrace tight riff-rock much more than older songs. When bursts of distorted guitar open “And Done,” the band succeeds in making it both catchy and heavy. Engine Down is full of upbeat rockers, which clearly makes the album more accessible. Singer Keeley Davis has improved vastly since the last CD, and his high voice sounds powerful as opposed to whiny. To Bury Within the Sound, another earlier work, is a stark contrast with its melancholic tone and yearning vocals. Fans of earlier material will still dig the new release but probably listen to it apart from the older, cathartic music.

Still, as a longtime fan of the band, I’m partial to Demure and earlier albums. Engine Down doesn’t flow great from beginning to end; it feels more like a “singles” disc. This isn’t always a bad thing; quality songs like “Rogue,” “And Done,” “Cover,” and “101” make the purchase worth it. Demure is admittedly stronger in comparison with its honestly emotional music. In short, I skip around the self-titled release, but I have to listen to Demure in its entirety. The new disc is a safer venture than the old stuff, with plenty of nonabrasive straight-forward rock. The older material sounds stronger with more complexities than the more traditional thing they’re doing now. The earnest passion of Demure is one of a kind, though, so I can respect that these guys are going new places.