Engine Down makes no grand departures on its self-titled fourth album and first on Lookout! Records; there’s no easily discernible evolution, no indication that the band succumbed to record-label demands. But despite having the same defining sound as its predecessor, 2002’s Demure, Engine Down is a better album. Still, combining lines of ambiguously directed frustration (“The pain sounds sweet in a song/ In time I’ll learn to leave it behind/ I’ll reveal only a sigh/ Only a note beneath your cries”) with the band’s trademark mildly distorted yet bass-heavy guitar rhythms, Engine Down’s difficult-to-interpret lyrics and unyielding brand of rock make it difficult to categorize.
What makes the sound so distinct? The band formed in Virginia nearly a decade ago and has since been compared to rock bands including Sparta and Pretty Girls Make Graves and labeled a post-hardcore group of the “angst-ridden,” “cathartic” or “brooding” variety. Sure, those terms may apply. But particularly on this album, Engine Down seems a bit too mature to be a post-hardcore band. And maybe that’s why Engine Down is so hard to compare to other albums.
Engine Down sounds tighter, more intentionally planned and better produced than the somewhat raw Demure, even if the songs themselves, upon shallow intake, are hardly different. What’s frustrating is the communication style of the lyrics — who they’re directed at or whether they’re more optimistic than a non-English-lit major would suspect. And vocalist Keeley Davis, albeit blessed with beautiful bone structure, sounds tired. He’s got a monotone voice to begin with, and although it works because his voice blends smoothly into the blaring guitars, there appears to be no emotion behind it. It’s frustrating: The album is certainly worth listening to and runs nicely straight through, but I can’t help but wonder if the band was forced to add a bit of polish here and there or if Davis was required several recording takes to get his voice right there.
Maybe this is what separates them from most emo and post-hardcore bands: They don’t quite reveal themselves in their music. But for the time being, I’ll remain satisfied in thinking that the music is just as important as the lyrics — if not more so. And maybe Lookout! will find success in releasing a few “brooding” and “yearning” singles off this record.