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Higher gears 

Pendulous drones of downcast Stratocasters, stop-start rhythmic embellishments and face-to-the-corner lyrics of mop-haired disassociation: all familiar territory for those prone to indie-style alienation. But for Virginia's Engine Down -- once a head-rattling sonic attack and now more sedately intellectual -- the tried-and-true components pale in the face of their combined effect. There, nervous orchestrations meet airplane-hangar vocal delivery in an uncomfortable, ultimately satisfying collage of intention and distraction. You almost have to listen.

But "Demure," the band's masterpiece, is more than a year old. What would compel a relatively underground band to keep pulling at a relatively unheard project, touring and touring, when most would either head into the studio or pack up their van and head back to the garage? The answer is, simply, quality.

"We've concentrated on supporting "Demure" on tour a lot more than we have any other record, because when it came out, we didn't get a bunch of press," says guitarist Jonathan Fuller. "So we made a conscious decision to keep on touring it and not start writing, so we could pay more attention to those songs."

The little Engine that could, then, who have recorded two full lengths prior to this one ("Under the Pretense of Present Tense" cracked the CMJ top 20), are sticking to their guns, launching yet another tour in support of the album that ought to break them, all while maintaining side projects to avoid futility. Denali, a more mellow, chamber-sad outfit, features both Fuller and singer Keeley Davis, in addition to Davis' sister on vocals. Their new record is being timed to coincide with the tour's outset.

The focus remains on "Demure," though, with hope that some public fermentation process will maintain, even boost, its relevance.

"It is a little more subdued," says Fuller, of the record's sound. "But we always have sort of strived to make records that you will appreciate with age, so that every time you listen to it you hear something that you haven't heard before."

Formed in 1996, Engine Down have plotted an evolution of sounds and members that continues to lead to greater things and darker places. And if it hasn't necessarily caught on here, "Demure" has carved inroads the world over, thanks to tours across Europe and Japan.

"`Japan` was actually awesome," says Fuller. "We played sold-out clubs -- they weren't huge or anything -- but it was better than playing anywhere else in the U.S., just because people knew who we were before we even got there, which was awesome. There's sort of a culture of fanaticism, too. People wanted autographs and to get their picture taken with us and stuff, which was weird."

And deserved. Having weathered seven years beneath the radar, despite songs that tower above it, you might expect a bit of foot-shuffling consternation. But, for Engine Down, the direction remains, cautiously, forward.

"It's been interesting and a little disheartening, to get this far into the business and to see what it's all about, what a lot of promotion boils down to," says Fuller. "But what keeps us going is making music, and opportunities keep getting bigger and better for us."

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