A Review and a Chat with Leeds-based Psychedelic Dance-Pop Duo, ENGINE

The new single from ENGINE clocks in at almost seven minutes. It is progressive, but not pretentious. It’s complex, yet easy on the ears. It’s delightful. This review’s length is proportional to the amount of attention (and inspection) I believe the song deserves. 

I was introduced to ENGINE by Dominik D’Entrecasteux, he runs Big Richard Records. Heard of it? Well, you have now. Dom messages me about this new band he’s working with. Says they’re a Leeds-born electro-pop duo called ENGINE with a new single coming out – “you’re gonna dig it, electronic, jazzy, dancey…” the adjectives go on. The single is called ‘Solitary Moods’, which, for lack of a better word, is a timely title. I feel solitary, and I feel moody, so I click Dom’s link and hit play. 

Immediately I am confronted with unique percussion; the drums are paradoxical. They feel strict, rigid, computerised, military. They also feel organic, bright, like there are 4 or so guys hitting individual drums, with flourishes and all. I imagine them on a parade float, or at a protest – sweating and leaping about. I’m stumped – the percussion is a mystery, there’s so much energy, yet I’m sure they aren’t played live. And who knows how this oscillating tone got here. Is it a synth? Why is it ominous? I’ve never had so many questions after 30 seconds of music – other than the first time someone played me the Old Town Road remix feat. Young Thug & Mason Ramsey (the principal question being “where has this BEEN my whole life!?”).

Dominik d’Entrecasteux is eating a Cheese String when his laptop pings. He sits up (he likes to eat cheese in bed, supine) and opens my DM: I need to talk to the band. He licks his fingers and types: I’m on it. 

Minutes later, I’m added to a group chat with James Elson and Dominic Freeman, the two members of ENGINE. Gulp. I send a message asking if the drums are sampled:

The majority of Solitary Moods is made from samples – pretty much everything you can hear, apart from the guitar and vocals. The main groove, in the first half of the track, is a combination of a slowed drown drum beat, layered with itself played back at double-speed, a thumb piano loop and some toms. – Freeman

This groove patiently builds for the first two minutes of the track. Over the energetic drums, there is an occasional tease of an indecipherable sample. ENGINE employs the technique of old school DJ’s here, a finger on the record, letting it go for a second or so, then pulling it right back and waiting. But this sample seems to shift. It glides between a trill on a flute and a bow on a string. I send another message, asking after this elusive collage:

They’re taken from a couple of my dad’s old records – one is called ‘Music For Zen Meditation’, by Tony Scott and the other is a track called ‘Ys’ by Alan Stivell from his album ‘Renaissance of the Celtic Harp’. – Freeman

That actually explains a lot. 

At the 2 minute mark, the vocals make an excellent introduction – for me at least. (I’m a sucker for hearing a clean inhale). The vocals are spacey, they echo over the rest of the track and reverberate around my skull, sounding like a bored god. The voice ripples, I really like it. There’s too much reverb to decipher every line, so I return to the chat with further requests: 

“Solitary Moods do take me, Solitary Moods confine me”. I was working in a supermarket at the time and felt very miserable and lonely whilst stacking those shelves on my billy todd. I’d come home and sit in my bedroom in Leeds and wonder what it was all about. This is what the lyrics concern. – Elson

Again, explains a lot. If you want to fully experience this song, I highly recommend walking through a supermarket with earphones in. I tried it; the scattering of sullen, masked faces provided profound visual context. It also hammered home the tempo – this song might pretend to be a dance track, but it isn’t. Walking is the best activity for listening to ENGINE. Consistent repetitions. Locomotion. 

 The vocals arrive in tandem with an unusual guitar riff. It sounds almost like a sitar; the licks slide up and down the fretboard like water. I defer to the band:  

The guitar, played by James, is pitch-shifted up an octave using a pedal, giving it that freaky sound. You can hear the digital technology glitching as it struggles to keep the guitar in tune. – Freeman

ENGINE consists of a patient couple of lads. They’re willing to explain every little detail, and they have to! If you haven’t noticed by now, these guys are making something rare. They’re sampling the world they’ve found themselves in, and they breathe authentic life into compositions which might, with less care, sound simply robotic. 

At least, the first half might. 

This track has two distinct movements. As we approach minute four, most layers melt away, leaving the drums to persevere on. They’re joined first by a cleaner, bright, groovy strumming courtesy of Elson, and then by some muffled rising tone. Another sample! Cries my phone, This one is some reversed acoustic guitar – E.

Eventually, the swell parlays into an unexpectedly optimistic and joyful indie song. Sure, the lyrics still aren’t 100% happy days, but whose are? It still makes me want to stand in a field with my arms out and spin. Hippie dancing, as nobody calls it. My first thought was this sounds like The Stone Roses, but upon further reflection (and the band saying I’m wrong) I’d say their influences are a little less obvious. James, the singer, fills me in after I ask if they take after The Happy Mondays or the Roses:

Our vocal influences are The Beatles, The Beach Boys, David Gilmour, Sparklehorse, and Veljo Tormis. We like 90s stuff but the fact it comes out sounding like those bands is more coincidence than anything. – Elson

This section also features a, frankly, beautiful lofi keyboard riff. I adore it. It’s the best part of the song for me. Every time it finally arrives, after four and a half minutes, I get a rush of pure happiness that feels like a large coffee was thrown at my bare torso and my skin just immediately absorbed it. Plinky, I would call this little riff. Plonky, also. 

I ask the boys where this riff comes from, and who is responsible for it finding it’s way into ‘Solitary Moods’. 

The riff is made from another vinyl sample, loaded into an Ableton sampler instrument and then played live using a MIDI keyboard. A similar technique was used with most of the samples. Although James tends to produce his own vocals/guitar, I take on the vast majority of production duties. – Freeman. 

Safe to say, this song starts one way and ends another. Its midway metamorphosis is akin to the humble caterpillar, which (after briefly dissolving itself) unfurls its colourful new wings and takes flight. This track lifts off. My heart goes with it. 

On a final note, I ask Freeman if he can break down the drums in the second half, I can’t make out if there’s bongos, toms, or an upturned bin, I say. There’s definitely a tambourine, right? 

The drums in the second half of the track are just one loop, taken from a disco record entitled ‘Jerky Rhythm’ by the Erotic Drum Band. Yeah, there’s definitely a tambourine in there, possibly some congas and bongos? Maybe toms too. Not entirely sure to be honest. Think there’s also a woodblock. – F.

The great mystery continues. Dearest readers, if you do anything today, take your little tooshies over to ENGINE’s Soundcloud and take a listen to Solitary Moods. See if there really is a woodblock, and see if you can resist dancing when the tension breaks. I dare you. (I’m not being paid for this, I swear). 

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