Just as 2013 was turning out to be a stinker in terms of good music, a band that I'd started to believe had had their day, rediscovered it. Back in the last century when Amplifier got together they recorded some songs that would end up on the fan appreciation CD Eternity, it showed a darker, embryonic, more post-rock influenced band who seemed to like atmosphere over impact. Coming to these songs and liking them, especially after falling for Amplifier's unique rock stylings, was something of bonus - like discovering Picasso was a damned good landscape artist too!
I have also been a fan of first albums (and more often than not by bands who would go on to become giants) because the first album, in most cases, shows you what these artists are capable of doing when they have nothing to do. First albums tend to be everything a band has done up to that point in their careers, second albums have been written at the end of the first album, sometimes while on tour, but usually in considerably less time - hence one of the reasons for Second Album Syndrome. So rediscovering that verve especially after 13 years together and four previous studio albums is always going to be a tough ask.
Isn't it the way? You look forward to a bunch of things and they all let you down, while the one thing you had been ambivalent about turns out to be fucking bonkers brilliant. The Octopus was a magnum opus - a massive prog/space/rock opera with more baggage than Heathrow. It had a mixture of great songs and Sci-Fi bollocks and would have made a stunning single album (especially if Interstellar was on it).
What The Octopus also had was a distinctly different feel to it - Amplifier had changed from this rock band with prog leanings to the exact mirror image - a prog band with rock leanings. Something else about this band, that I'm sure they'd struggle to appreciate, is that they produce some great stadium pop/rock anthems (that just happen to have bolt-ons and extras to make them less accessible to the 3 minute emo rock song fan). With The Octopus the band probably did enough to become recognised outside of their own little fan base - Echo Street, with the backing of a proper label, seems to have brought them back to their atmospheric space rock roots.
Something else happened while they made that album; the band changed line-ups and while Sel Balamir has always been the driving force behind Amplifier, the new guys bring something extra to the table. There are harmonies, effects and paths you wouldn't imagine the old three-piece Amplifier would go down. Suddenly this bunch of bordering middle-aged rockers had found the maturity that possibly has been missing from their music up until this album.
Those early pop/rock anthems were charged with gallons of space rock and you faced a wall of cosmic noise every time you turned the volume up to 11, but The Octopus turned Amplifier from being three blokes getting on stage and rocking the world to something a little more organised and focused - something that at times required too much effort and not enough fun and this showed in lacklustre live gigs. Echo Street sounds like that embryonic band from the Eternity CD with a lot of effects pedals, quite a bit of angst and an urge to rediscover the atmosphere.
Echo Street is quite simply the antidote to 2013's anodyne output so far. Don't get me wrong, this does have some faults (but nothing to really jar) but it will confirm that this is a band who have been given a new lease of life and provided KScope do the business, Amplifier might well become this year's break out rock band.
The opening song Matmos is not really a single (although it has been marketed as such) and gives you an idea where this album is going. It is dark, driving and atmospheric and yet melodic. Up next is The Wheel which continues the theme, but has tended to be almost forgotten because it is sandwiched between two very epic songs. Extra Vehicular, which follows it, is a monster of a track with a guitar riff that will have you nodding your head in greebo agreement. It starts slowly, promises something, then pulls it away and it continues to tease like this for seven minutes before just deciding to assault the listeners senses for another five - simply stunning and I expect it to be a real crowd pleaser at live gigs.
Next up is the wonderful Where the River Goes, which is almost soulful (until the crescendo that takes you somewhere else entirely), Paris in the Spring is a bit like CSN&Y meets Muse and the Laurel Canyon theme continues with Between Today and Yesterday. Echo Street, the title track, is just both thunderous and dreamy in its psyche rock splendour. For me it was the first track to jump up and slap me round the head. It all wraps up with Mary Rose, which reminds me of Pink Floyd circa 1971 mixed with a bit of XTC and yet not like either.
I won't say this is a return to greatness because The Octopus is a good album and it deserves its place, this does though feel like a 'proper' album, if you know what I mean and it's been a very long time since Amplifier did a 'proper' album. My faith has been restored.
8½ out of 10