Can I drive you home?

Engine Kid are interesting to me by virtue of the fact that people pass them over so completely. Considering singer/guitarist Greg Anderson's formidable stoner-rock resume--he's been in Goatsnake, Sunn 0))), and Thorr's Hammer, among quite a few others--you'd think that people would be interested in checking out his earlier bands, especially when they are as musically interesting and tough to pin down as Engine Kid were. Maybe that's the whole problem; unlike anything Anderson is involved in currently, Engine Kid were by no means stoner rock. In fact, though they spent a good bit of time being heavy, their sound was kind of all over the place, as we will discuss shortly. They're a bit of an acquired taste, and that's probably true even for those whose tastes are esoteric enough to draw them to Sunn 0))). Despite all of that, I generally think of Engine Kid as the best band Greg Anderson has ever been a part of. And their final, double-length LP, Angel Wings, is their true masterpiece.

For whatever reason, the vinyl version of Angel Wings features a very different running order than the cassette and CD versions. The tendency among collectors is always to regard the vinyl version as the definitive one, and any deviation from the state of the vinyl to be ersatz. I have this tendency myself, but this once I'm going to go against my usual feeling and take a stand for the cassette/CD running order as the correct one. It might help that I owned the cassette first, and therefore had a chance to get used to it, but I feel sure that even if I'd first acquired the vinyl, I would have understood that the order that placed "Windshield" as the album's opening track is the superior one.

Engine Kid spend a lot of time on Angel Wings being heavy, in intricate and fascinating ways. However, "Windshield" is quite different from anything else here, and plays a somewhat cruel trick on the listener and his/her expectations. It starts out very quietly, with guitar and bass playing a soft, undistorted melody, over which Anderson sings. "In the back of my car, I spent the night," he tells us, and the extreme quiet of the music mirrors the feeling of a groggy early morning, waking up to rays of sunshine in your eyes. He ends the verse by singing, "Sunshine stung my eyes, coming through the windshield," and then the drums come in, slightly increasing the volume of the track as they play along with the guitars and bass. After a brief instrumental passage, there's another quiet verse, and when this one ends, the volume suddenly increases. It's not just that all of the musicians start playing loudly--Anderson singing overtop of the music about being "wakened by a passing train"--but that the track was mixed to get significantly louder at this point. You've been turning up your stereo to hear the quiet verses, and now you get knocked over by a sudden, seemingly intentional volume increase. As soon as it's started, though, the whole loud chorus stops, and there's the briefest second of silence, after which the guitar and bass start playing quietly again. There's one more brief quiet verse, but as soon as you've adjusted to the volume dropping out, it comes back in, even louder and heavier than before. Musically speaking, the band is now playing with about the volume, distortion and heaviness they will use throughout the album, but with Anderson singing rather than screaming overtop of it, repeating, "Can I drive you home?" over and over, the part doesn't sound heavy but rather emotionally intense, with the loud guitars emphasizing the pleading emotional tone of the vocals. It's almost like something Sunny Day Real Estate would do, and I'm sure it's a total surprise to someone who would buy this record expecting stoner rock. At least when it begins the album, it fits as a sort of introduction, bringing you in slowly rather than flinging you right off the deep end. Placed inbetween two other songs on the record, as it is on the vinyl, I'm sure the contrast is even more jarring.

The next nine songs are more in line with the typical Engine Kid sound, which is somewhere between Black Sabbath, Don Caballero, and Rodan. There's still plenty of space for exploration within that sound, though, and the gamut of tracks on Angel Wings makes that abundantly clear. Engine Kid shift from short, heavy instrumental tracks like "Nailgun," "Herbie Hancock," and "A Quinn Martin Production" (the latter of which is an unlisted hidden track on the cassette and CD, and only given a title on the vinyl); to epic explorations that move through multiple moods and time signatures and often stretch to 7 and 8 minute lengths. "Lies Like Knives" is one of these latter epics, and is a dark, ferocious beast with the power of a nighttime electrical storm. As the rhythm section switches between different pounding breakdown riffs, Greg Anderson screams the song's title over and over, wrenching brutal chugging chord sequences from his guitar, which sometimes sounds like a churning piece of heavy machinery and other times falls apart into feedback. This song is probably heavier than anything I've heard on a Goatsnake record, and approaches Sunn 0))) territory at its wildest.

"Expressionists" starts with a strange sequence of riffs that stop and start, propelled by a drum part that fills the empty spaces with rolls that seem unplanned and barely held together, but always fit perfectly into the underlying rhythm. Said underlying rhythm becomes clear after about 45 seconds, when the band finally starts playing together as a unit, with bassist Brian Kraft taking his only lead vocal on the album. His voice is much softer and quieter than Anderson's typically is, but doesn't reach the melodic heights Anderson hits on "Windshield," either. His vocals mix with the chaotic music in a fashion most reminiscent of intricate hardcore bands like Unwound or Drive Like Jehu, a sound that was at its peak in 1994, when Angel Wings was recorded.

"Jumper Cables" is another song that is less heavy than mathematically complex, beginning with a long, ominous section in which Greg Anderson talks rather than sings, narrating a story in the fashion of Slint vocalist Brian MacMahan before beginning to scream when the song gets much heavier around the two-minute mark. Its abrupt transitions from loud to quiet are nothing new for heavy, metallic post-hardcore bands, but the way Engine Kid fit the parts of "Jumper Cables" together makes the whole thing work, achieving the integration of Slint and Rodan's epic horror movie narratives and the pounding, noisy crescendoes that those bands rarely bothered to write.

"Anchor" begins with bagpipes, which soon give way to another quiet, foreboding riff, over which Anderson mumbles bizarre, disconnected imagery. Once this song gets heavy, though, it very rarely returns to the quiet moments, instead locking into a tremendously complicated series of interconnected heavy riffs that fit together in ways not immediately obvious to the listener. This is pure math-rock at its heaviest, with Engine Kid using stops and starts to make the whole thing that much more tortured. By halfway through the song, Greg Anderson is struggling to spit out lyrics like "Dog brain--take the A train," as the instruments--including, one must assume, his own--bark out disconnected chords, chopping his lyrics apart at seemingly random but obviously planned-out intervals. Each of these choppy verses ends with Anderson screaming over silence, "...and never come..." On the word "BACK!" the whole band is suddenly playing again, sweeping his vocals away on a powerful tide of heavy noise.

The album ends with a 13 minute cover of John Coltrane's "Ole," which is the spiritual opposite of its opening track, "Windshield." Where that song was Engine Kid at their most accessible, presenting a melodic, emotional indie rock song not that far removed from the sound of, say, Sunny Day Real Estate [Random trivia: Greg Anderson and SDRE bassist Nate Mendel were both in a straight edge hardcore band called Brotherhood in the late 80s, when both were teenagers], "Ole" is Engine Kid at their farthest out, taking their mathematically inclined metallic post-hardcore aesthetic to its logical conclusion: dark, pounding, free jazz. Earlier in 1994, Engine Kid had released a split LP with Iceburn, and Iceburn's contribution had been two 15-minute tracks in which they explored different variations on a theme from Stravinsky's "The Rite Of Spring." While Engine Kid were not anywhere near as far-out as Iceburn tended to get, it's not hard to imagine how hearing those Iceburn tracks might have influenced the decision to record "Ole." The trio of full-time Engine Kid members basically relegate themselves to the rhythm section during the song, bringing in Bill Herzog [still a Sunn 0))) collaborator] to hold down the groove on upright bass, and John Phelps and Tim Midgett of the band Silkworm to play alto sax and trumpet, respectively. Phelps and Midgett are all over the place, soloing throughout the track, but they are strangely sidelined by Engine Kid themselves, who stick to the basic chords of the song but slowly play them more and more heavily, until their rhythmic pounding has made you forget all about the horns. Using distortion pedals and the unrelenting style that they've learned from hardcore and metal, they create a powerful rhythmic pulse of a variety rarely, if ever, heard in straight-up jazz music. They don't turn "Ole" into a hardcore or metal song, though; they preserve the feel and structure of the Coltrane original, honoring it with a new, updated take on it even as they make clear, by virtue of the energy and emotion they pour into it, how much respect they have for the original version. It could be said that they breathe some much-needed life into a mostly dead genre here. That is, one could say that if it were clear that it had an effect on jazz as a whole. Fifteen years after its release, just the opposite is true: it's clear that it had no effect at all.

Engine Kid are a band of extreme shifts in genre, mood, and tempo, and no matter what feel they are exploring on a particular song, they always create a challenging piece of music. Considering Greg Anderson's more recent rise to fame, perhaps it would be most correct to say that Engine Kid were ahead of their time. Or maybe the problem is that they haven't been packaged correctly, or put in front of the right group of people, to find their natural audience. Whatever the explanation, though, it remains true to say that Engine Kid deserve much more credit than they get, if not for being influential, then at least for being a creative and consistently excellent band.

Engine Kid - "Windshield," "Anchor," "Expressionists"

ENGINE KID - "Windshield" from Revelation Records on Vimeo.



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