“Uh-oh, here we go again,” was pretty much my first thought tonight. I had arrived at The Duchess ten minutes after the doors would normally open to find a “crowd” of just half a dozen people still standing outside in the cold, damp evening. To make matters even more worrying, one of them seemed to only be there to hand out flyers for a music shop. To be honest, I never know what sort of turnout to expect these days. Music rarely seems to attract anything like sell-outs in York and, given that I had only heard of tonight’s headliners through a couple of articles in Prog magazine, maybe a small crowd was to be expected. By the time the doors opened numbers had swelled into double figures but, like the weather, it was still looking a bit bleak on the crowd front.
Support tonight came from Belfast’s Mojo Fury and they started promisingly with an instrumental track that immediately brought to mind Lost From Atlas, only louder. And it was that loudness that was the problem as the rest of the set contained songs in which the vocals were pretty much drowned out by the music. What vocals did make it through during the second song reminded me a little of David Byrne from Talking Heads. Other than that, though, they barely raised above indistinct. Having said that, the music was OK, mixing an indie sound with a touch of progressiveness thanks to time changes and variations of sound within the songs. A good example would be All In All, which featured quieter sections interspersed with crashing drums. Sadly, one song was backed by an electronic rhythm which, annoyingly, gave it a sort of 80’s, Howard Jones type vibe. The rest were intriguing, atmospheric rock. I just wish the mix had done them a few more favours. One other thing, for some reason, the bass-player spent most of the gig playing with his back to the audience. I’m not sure why – if he was aiming for moody and mysterious, it came across more as rude. (If it was a nerves thing, I apologise…)
By the time Amplifier had started setting up the crowd had increased into triple figures, many of whom were sporting various T-shirts or ties featuring the front cover picture from the band’s latest release, The Octopus, which had been lauded as one of the albums of the year by Prog magazine. Indeed, the merchandise table – probably the best stocked I had seen in nearly thirty years of gig-going – seemed to be doing brisk business. It took a while for the set-up to be completed as, for the first time that I can remember, the monitors were removed from the front of the stage and trays of effects pedals were put in place. Each of the two guitarists (Sel Balamir being joined by Steve Durose, ex of Oceansize, for touring duties) and the bass player seemingly had access to more pedals than your average band put together. So impressive were they that some of the audience were taking photographs of them. The band finally took to the stage dressed uniformly in black with the aforementioned Octopus ties and unleashed a wall of sound that immediately reminded me of The Engineers with a generous dollop of Muse mixed in. I couldn’t tell you what songs were contained in the ninety-minute set but the music was an effects laden mix of teasing harmonies and crashing chords. The vocals were clearer but, even so, none of the songs could be said to be catchy enough to lodge themselves in my brain (except, perhaps, for one which may have been called Faster Than Light and which contained more than a hint of a Rush influence). But that’s not the point of bands like Amplifier. They’re not trying to produce radio-friendly music but music which pushes the boundaries, music that’s different and, in some ways, music that makes you think and that has to be listened to properly to be appreciated properly. I enjoyed the set, but maybe I’ll have a better appreciation of Amplifier when I get a chance to listen to The Octopus, the special edition of which I bought tonight from bass-player Neil Mahoney who, when the band left the stage, pushed the merchandise guy out of the way and proceeded to shake the hand of everybody buying anything and thanking them profusely for turning up, while Sel chatted with fans and calling out goodbyes to everybody who walked past him. Nice touches.