Sincere Engineer – ‘Bless My Psyche’

By Ian Kenworthy

To understand Sincere Engineer, it helps to know where the name comes from. Legend has it the phrase was uttered by a member of The Lawrence Arms in an early 2000s interview, and it caught the attention of a young Deanna Belos who would later become a singer/songwriter. First used as her Twitter handle, it made sense to retain the moniker when picking a name for her solo project – so while technically still being a sole endeavour, after building a reputation on the Chicago punk scene Sincere Engineer has become far more than one person with an acoustic guitar. When playing live Belos is often joined by a three-piece band, and that arrangement defines the sound of her studio output and the newest record ‘Bless My Psyche’.

When listening to Sincere Engineer you might find yourself thinking about the psychological debate known as nature versus nurture; is your behaviour something you are born with or fostered by a community? The reason their music brings this to mind is because Belos has been active in the Chicago scene alongside well-established bands for years, thus her songwriting owes a debt to it. However, on this second full-length her personal nature is more prominent. You can clearly hear where the songs push away from the more standard punk rock template, approaching the sound laid down on 2017’s ‘Rhombithian’ in a more mature way. Where the previous album was full of robust anthems, this is more complex and thought-provoking.

At its best ‘Bless My Psyche’ feels both genuine and inspired. For example, ‘Recluse In The Making’ features a distinct bass tone that adds a small industrial lilt to its gentle acoustic flow. It’s simple but very effective in expanding the song’s simple guitar lines, making for a song that is delicately progressive and quite lovely. Equally ‘Tourniquet’ takes one idea and folds it onto its head, starting slowly before unleashing its power in its second half. By shifting into a rhythmic bass break, it offers a different angle to the songs around it.

Lyrically Belos uses a dry wit which might not be blatantly funny, but is acutely observed and gives the songs an edge that circumvents the need for a powerful chorus. It feels almost courteous that she frequently delivers them, especially on ‘Gone For So Long’ which catches you unaware as it rises out of the verse.  For the most part she sings with a raspy voice that wouldn’t be so good for a lullaby but would fit right in at a campfire sing-along, and it helps sell the earnest lyrics. That warmth crops up often, notably on the aforementioned ‘Recluse in the Making’.

The album’s biggest punch comes from ‘Trust Me’ which opens out with a blast of drums and beaming guitars, but it’s the chorus that really knocks you off your feet, using a hook that’s subtle but catchy to pull the rug from under you. ‘Hurricane of Misery’ shares the same style but works in a different way, feeling wide and bright with its crashing cymbals and ringing guitars while having fun with its refrain of “I want to touch you with my mouth, I want to drink ‘til I pass out”. This might be a little frivolous but remains tightly focused and doesn’t hang around for more than three minutes.  It’s a trait shared by all the songs here – once ideas have run their course they get out of the way, giving the album a pace that works in its favour.

At its most straightforward the album has a pleasingly hard edge and doesn’t shy away from its punk rock credentials. The noisy and heavy ‘Dry Socket’ features hard muted strums akin to Alkaline Trio, while ‘Coming In Last’ wears a pop-punk overcoat in its palm muted verses, hiding a thrillingly emo core beneath. It’s not only the guitars that have that early Alkaline Trio feel, though. You might notice her voice has a gravelly edge like Matt Skiba’s, especially on ‘Gone For So Long’ and on ‘Come Out For A Spell’. If those tracks haven’t scratched your emo itch, the acoustic ‘Bless My Psyche’ will. A simple and warm closer, proving that even stripped right back, honesty is her strongest weapon.

‘Out Of Reach’ provides an interesting study as it has a slightly different approach to the other songs here and provides a snapshot of how the album could have been constructed. By padding out its sound with keyboards, it feels thicker but also less remarkable than the songs around it. It emphasises a soft rock style over its honestly, but it doesn’t take anything away from the album as a whole.

With the previous album arriving almost four years ago this new outing feels a little overdue, but it was definitely worth the wait. ‘Rhombithian’ was rough-edged and honest with a punk feel while lyrically leaning toward emo, full of chiming guitars, subtle choruses and made for a really solid debut. ‘Bless My Psyche’ pushes gently out of that space in a number of directions, playing with your expectations and creating a different experience. While still recognisably a punk record and very much a product of the scene that birthed it, it is never content to dwell on specific sound, adding and changing elements so that each song feels individual whilst being part of a greater collection. It manages to be open and honest but with the accessibility of pop-punk, making it something of a treat.

Due to its lightly experimental leanings the album flows in an unusual way. Its style jumps around, but it remains charming and focused throughout. Overall ‘Bless My Psyche’ is a real delight, made up of likeable punk-rock with a soft centre of experimentalism. It’s light enough to grip you from a first listen, but has enough depth and warmth to keep you coming back for more.

IAN KENWORTHY

 

 

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