When the curtain’s been drawn so far back, how can you leave anything hidden? It’s something that Engineers’ Mark Peters has strived to answer over more than 10 years of brilliantly shaded guitar textures and teasing lyrical ambiguities, across three albums – including 2009’s critically-lauded Three Fact Fader (“A blistering statement of intent” – The Sunday Times) and 2010’s swift follow-up In Praise Of More (which received plaudits from Clash and Spin among others). With Engineers’ fourth LP, Always Returning, Peters again seeks to move away from the bright lights of the 21st century’s impatience and the insatiable thirst to know everything about everyone through social networking systems.
Written and recorded alone at home in York, before being coated with the deft brush strokes of ambient electronica producer and now fully-fledged Engineers member, Ulrich Schnauss and London based drummer and composer Matthew Linley; Always Returning is a record that unhurriedly drifts in and out of focus, hinting at themes without ever making them so explicit that the listener can’t map out their own personal interpretations. It delivers an overall emotional heft that’s impossible to pull away from.
Peters is drawn to retaining mythology in music and, from the first track ‘Bless The Painter’, Always Returning addresses a sense that our internet-led all-access culture is stripping that away. “As a teenager looking into the future I’d have loved to have been able to hear anything all the time, anytime,” he admits. “But everyone’s so used to getting that now – and getting information about artists instantly - that it’s undermining music and art in general.” The track itself concerns a holiday in Amsterdam, where the Liverpudlian saw “everyone in the art galleries holding their phones up to the artwork, just ticking off that they’d seen it rather than actually looking at it.”
A musician who still believes in the worth of classing himself as an artist, Peters views Engineers after more than a decade as “trying to create my own personal utopia” and says that “if you’re going to invest so much time in that, then you really have to believe in it”. He’s someone for whom dropping the first idea into the public realm without a second thought isn’t an option, a writer who enjoys creating puzzles and catacombs for the listener to gradually navigate. In a break from Engineers’ past, he sings every word on this new record, stepping out from the mask of using another vocalist and laying himself bare; even if – as ever – his stream of consciousness approach to writing encourages you to complete the explanations of his words yourself.
In a paradox, Always Returning sonically feels more open than any Engineers LP before. Gone – or at least quietened – are the great washes of sound that have characterised past releases; this has the feel of the bonnet being opened up to see the intricacies that have always lain under Peters’ music. Take the song ‘Search For Answers’, which eschews sweeping reverb for tightly packed six-string motifs that scuttle around the song’s larger framework – a nod, perhaps, to new wave artists Felt and Wire, who he was listening to around this record’s gestation. Earlier on, ‘It Rings So True’ still comes blushed in a familiar breathiness, yet draws back to allow the melody to stand alone amidst the expanse. “Listening to a lot of what’s been going on in the underground electronic scene was influential,” Peters explains. “The detail that’s being brought out in the production of a lot of it’s been amazing.”
Two instrumental tracks – ‘Innsbruck’ and ‘Smoke Mirrors’ – are the biggest indicators of Schnauss’ continuing influence on Peters work. Since joining Engineers for 2010’s In Praise Of More, the German producer has become a firm friend and collaborator; the pair put out two records of instrumental music between Engineers albums – 2012’s Underrated Silence and last year’s Tomorrow Is Another Day - and Peters admits that the ongoing process of working with him informed how they approached Always Returning. “The more you work with someone the more you develop your ideas as opposed to spontaneously finding things together” he says. “Tomorrow Is Another Day was quite considered, and we both felt that we wanted to get back to a more instantaneous way of working.”
As such, Schnauss had only three of the album’s tracks when he was presented with the full set at his home studio in London. Consequently forced to react on first impressions, the producer’s treatments are light, adding a playful touch to the record, in keeping with the spirit of spontaneity Peters wanted to capture. “It’s having that eureka moment for the first time that makes music so exciting,” he enthuses. “There was very little going back over it at that point, we didn’t want to dilute it. It’s the same with my lyric writing – being in the moment, not going back to re-word or re-write things.”
‘Innsbruck’ signposts the travelling that Peters and Schnauss have embarked on over the previous few years around Europe, for both work and pleasure. Aimed at encapsulating “the fear and wonder” of driving through the Alps, the constant motorik of the song plays on the sense of journeying – a pattern that runs through the record as a whole. An analogue approach was taken to give the album warmth, with live drums recorded in a day; computers discarded in favour of 70s processors.
The title of the album, Always Returning – apart from being taken from its final track’s interlocking mix of twinkling high-end and weighty bass murmurs – reflects Peters’ addiction to the creative process; beyond his and Schnauss’ desire to return to the instantaneity of their early hook-ups, it’s an album about the guitarist’s own submission to the thrill of simply making music. It is why ‘Bless The Painter’ finds him dismissing music’s “hobbyists”, why ‘Smiling Back’s’ chest-bursting euphoria has him believing that it “feels every day like there’s something more to say”.
“Music’s something I talk about every day, something I’m always going back to. I can’t imagine finishing an album and not having a compulsion to get right back into it,” he says. So it is that Always Returning feels different yet the same, reflecting as it does a passion that’s never dimmed. It’s a record that asks further questions about where Engineers are going without ever fully revealing the answers – the curtain tantalisingly remains only partly open.
Simon Jay Catling