Engineers – Three Fact Fader [Album]

Originally published at Sonic Dice, July 2009.

Abandonment issues are channelled by Engineers on this, their first album divorced from former label Echo Records. They’re clearly a band made of stern stuff, as what would finish off most acts has galvanised them into making an ambitious, textural record. Separation is a lyrical theme reiterated several times throughout Three Fact Fader, counterpointed by some truly blissful music. Engineers’ sound occupies the almost unspoken area between dream pop and shoegaze, making reference to both without truly constraining themselves to either, like a jilted lover still wary of commitment.

The opening clutch of tracks set out Engineers’ stall amicably. Lead single Clean Coloured Wire is completely hypnotic in its refusal to unfold conventionally, rolling along like a distant horizon viewed from a high-speed train. Its synthesizers swarm around, glistening like fireflies at dusk as staccato drums pound away, condensing and expanding in almost reflexive movements. Simon Phipps’ vocals wash over the track rather than punctuate it, happy to ride in the trough of the wave rather than adorn its crest. Sometimes I Realise doesn’t let up the initial assault, a noticeable shoegaze influence arriving with the chorus’s processed and distorted guitars. Metrical – practically chanted – lyrics contribute to the overly groovy feel of the track, with a driving bassline supported by a harsh, loud hi-hat sound. Whereas Clean Coloured Wire effortlessly segues into different sections, this track takes a noticeably more rhythmic tact, the band consciously propelling themselves into a massive chorus. International Dirge endeavours to find a middle ground between the formless, melting Clean Coloured Wire and the punchy, more conventional Sometimes I Realise. Grafting fluid guitar lines onto a metronomic drum pulse – which makes it sound like The Longcut or perhaps Untitled by Interpol – it settles the album into the trance-like state one can only imagine a dream pop band aim to achieve.

Helped By Science merely carries on this trend, the pace throughout remaining stately, celestial; some might even say plodding. Nevertheless, the Trail of Dead-sounding guitars and hushed Ian Brown-from-a-great-distance vocals of Brighter as We Fall eventually rise into a truly soaring chorus. The track shifts from widescreen to full-on HD, ascending into a Sigur Rós-esque wall of noise which rivals the very apex of Sæglópur in terms of sheer wide-eyed wonder. Although, the journey up there is perhaps not quite as thrilling and feedback-laden; whereas Sigur Rós’ loud moments sound like a maelstrom, Engineers’ are more like a breaking ice shelf falling elegantly into the ocean.

Before this descends into a track-by-track commentary on Three Fact Fader, the true point of such methodical analysis must be revealed. There are two very large elephants in the room that have not yet been addressed. And the first is this all sounds really, really, really like Maps’ We Can Create. If you’ve heard that album, then essentially – without wishing to be flippant of Engineers’ output – then you’ve heard Three Fact Fader, but better. Personally, I can’t listen to this without coming out the other side humming a Maps song. Hang Your Head particularly apes James Chapman’s outfit – in seemingly almost-intentional style – beginning as it does with a simple Jesus and Mary Chain guitar line, before proceeding to sound like You Don’t Know Her Name in the pre-chorus and then To The Sky in the chorus.

The second such pachyderm knocking over the coffee table and treading on the stereo is that there really isn’t much to tell the tracks apart. Particularly in this quite long album’s mid-section, attention begins to waver as the gradual realisation comes that you didn’t notice one track end and another begin once or twice. Such consistency may well make for a cohesive listen, but there’s cohesion and then there’s adhesion. And Three Fact Fader, with its muddy multi-tracked vocals, very much comes off as sounding stuck together. Pint of lager? Yay. Thirteen pints of lager in an hour? Hmm. It takes a fair few listens before differences make themselves apparent. Crawl From The Wreckage is something of a non-event for instance, but has a cool drum part in the chorus. It all demands quite a lot of the audience; the casual listener would probably be immediate dismissive of the album. Cranking the bass right up on your chosen listening platform helps, as it balances out the wishy-washy vocal and makes the tracks sound more distinguishable from one another. Doing so also allows the title track’s MGMT-style bassline to crawl from the wreckage of Crawl From the Wreckage, but otherwise the track is completely unremarkable. The album is guilty of a particularly lengthy low ebb stretching through most of its latter part, Crawl From the Wreckage and Three Fact Fader contributing to it. Whilst it’s difficult to pinpoint anything exactly bad about any of these songs, the truth is they just aren’t very notable. Emergency Room is probably the best track of this section, but is simultaneously symptomatic of the malaise that Three Fact Fader finds itself in here. Pretty though it is, Emergency Room tends to pass the listener by. The production is perhaps just a little too slick, rendering the album’s layered synths difficult to pick apart. It’s not immediately obvious who to pin blame on for the slight whitewash in sound that Three Fact Fader suffers from. Yes it was produced by Ken Thomas, who has worked with Maps, M83 and Sigur Rós. And yes it does recall all three bands at one time or another, Maps distinctly more so. But it’s a hasty conclusion to jump to that Thomas’ prior involvement with those bands has caused Three Fact Fader to be something of a facsimile.

Vocalist Phipps’ lyrics are tricky to decipher, and consequently it’s equally hard to care what the song is actually about. But when his voice is placed higher in the mix – revealing an Elliott Smith lilt on Song For Andy – it’s clear that such ignorance may be bliss, as what can be heard isn’t all that special. The chorus of Hang Your Head, for all its aforementioned plagiarism, probably provides both the lyrical and vocal highlight, working with a subtle key shift to provide a truly uplifting moment. What Pushed Us Together brings the album to a close, also begetting the longed-for distinctive sound, but it seems a slightly cynical move to locate it at the very end of the album. The cascading synths give the impression of the album getting stuck in your head, when in fact all it leaves is a ringing in the ears. The album is bookended by its most recognisable tracks, which seems like a deliberate, even mercenary, ploy. Also, at the best part of an hour, it’s a bloody long trudge to get through an entire album as samey as Three Fact Fader. Which isn’t to say it’s not a pleasurable experience; with a sound so gentle and consuming, it’s hard not to find something to like. It’s all rather like taking you’d imagine taking a warm bubblebath in zero gravity to be; in fact, Three Fact Fader would make an ideal soundtrack for such an activity.

6 out of 10. 

Sonic Dice score: 4 out of 6.

Hang Your Head on Spotify
Derisive it may be, but the key shift into Hang Your Head’s chorus is the emphatic highlight of Three Fact Fader.

Kscope Records
Engineers on Myspace


2 Responses to “Engineers – Three Fact Fader [Album]”

  1. This is really a awesome piece. I will have to add you to my Feed list.

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