Amplifier – The Duchess, 18/03/13

Photos included in this posting were taken by Marc McGarraghy, whose work can be found on Facebook or the Yellow Mustang website. Thanks, as always, go to him for allowing me to use them.

Somehow there was a strange feeling about tonight’s gig. A few days before, Amplifier had posted a mock-up Daily Mail cover announcing their “final” UK tour, along with a warning that unless enough people turned out to see them, they wouldn’t be able to afford to tour their home country again. Then it was announced that local band We Could Be Astronauts would be providing support (and, presumably, bringing along a few of their own fans). And then they weren’t and support would be provided by, I was told, an act who had “bought in” to the tour.

Anyway, as with the last time I saw Amplifier, when I arrived at The Duchess it was cold and the doors were late opening. Marc was already in the “queue” and, after saying “hello” I ended up right at the front with him, soon joined by Roj and Lynn. That probably shows how much of a draw Amplifier can be as this is the first time that they have been to a gig in months and it was a Monday to boot. As we chatted, a young guy was soundchecking on stage, standing behind a flight case which had a guitar case balanced on top and a few bits of tech perched on that. Then he disappeared…

…only to reappear without any sort of preamble or announcement a few minutes later, complete with acoustic guitar, singing in the middle of the audience. Charlie Barnes, I found out afterwards, describes his music as “big morbid death pop”. His first song featured sort of Spanish style guitar-playing with lots of stomping and crouching over and heartfelt vocals which eventually turned angry and shouty. Yeah, I guess his description kind of works. For the rest of the set, Charlie returned to the stage, back behind his technology, which seemed to include backing tracks and a loop machine. The next track included an ethereal backing track and softer vocals and loop effects. At times, Charlie seemed to be struggling to play the guitar and keep up with whatever he needed to do with the various pedals and switches – his hand flitting between instrument and tech – but, not being familiar with the music, I couldn’t tell whether he was having to miss anything out. Eventually the vocals were ramped up to something more raw and emotional than soft and that seemed to be de rigueur for a lot of his set. Between songs, he came across as amiable, with a gentle sense of humour, covering the slightly drawn out passages of retuning and tech-fiddling with light banter, such as telling us that his upcoming album was being produced by Amplifier’s own Steve Durose which, to say the least, was exciting him slightly. When he got going he was very good, his vocals never being overwhelmed by the music or the effects. My favourite track was the last of the set, which opened with Charlie producing his own percussion effects by tapping the microphone and clapping. These effects, along with a backing track were, I think, looped into the main section to give a lovely atmospheric track which was slightly spoiled (for me) by another, albeit small, shouting section towards the end. Roj was impressed enough to not only compare him to Martin Grech but to purchase a copy of Charlie’s first album – Geek. If I’m honest, I would have liked a copy, if only to see whether the recorded material came across as slightly slicker and whether the louder vocal sections weren’t quite as raw. Sadly, though, I was on a budget tonight. Maybe next time.

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Charlie Barnes

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As Charlie’s flight case was removed from the stage and we resumed chatting, I noticed a few more resonances of the last time Amplifier played York – the front of the stage was barren of monitors but filled with the impressive arrays of effects pedals that had been in evidence last time and various members of the crew and band were wandering around dressed completely in black and the same Octopus-bedecked ties as last time. At that point somebody decided to sound check the drum kit, hitting it with enough force that I thought one of my legs, which was right next to one of the side speakers, had been blown off… Tonight, it seemed, was going to be loud.

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That’s some serious pedal rigs

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One thing that was different this time round was the line-up. Last time, Amplifier had been a three-piece, with Steve Durose performing only on the tour. Now they are a four-piece (although Neil Mahoney has been replaced on bass by Alexander Redhead) but they have a fifth member on stage – Charlie Barnes was not only the support but also adding to the band’s live sound by playing keyboards, guitar and extra drums, as well as providing extra vocals. You can tell that a band play prog when they have announced a two hour set but the set list only lists twelve songs (and there isn’t much in the way of between song banter). Tonight’s set opened with Mary Rose, from new album Echo Street, which opens with a nice bass line before the rest of the band come in with power from the guitars and drums making the track explode into life in what could be said to be Amplifier’s signature style. Sel Balamir had already asked, “Why does the singer get the worst mic stand?” and the offending article was hastily replaced after the first track, leading to even more shenanigans when, due to it standing on, rather than between, the multitude of cables, it wouldn’t quite sit how he wanted it to. To be honest, with its proximity to the edge of the stage and the amount of readjustments being made, I’m surprised the thing managed to stay upright for the whole set. With Echo Street only having been released a few days before the gig, the set was peppered with songs from the band’s back catalogue. The Wave and Interglacial Spell, both from the previous release Octopus, followed with the raw power, three guitar wall of sound of the former giving way to the frantic and very impressive drumming of the latter. Asking the audience whether anybody had heard the new album prompted such responses as, “I’ve heard half of track two,” which was appropriate as that track – The Wheel – was next up. With a slightly less powerful sound, its nice twitchy guitar line was almost hypnotic and combined well with sections of soaring keyboards. Extra Vehicular, also from Echo Street, had another different sound, an almost country-rock guitar sound and ballad-like vocals interspersed with bursts of incredible power, with guitarists and bass-player alike almost dancing across their vast arrays of pedals. Sel’s use of the Wah-wah was particularly nice. Going right back to their debut album, Motorhead saw the band change to all-black guitars, a move which was ultimately short lived as Interstellar, a track that was was quietly dedicated to a deceased friend, saw Sel break a string and have to go back to his original white guitar mid-song. Interstellar itself starts off with a musical box opening before, once again, bursting with incredible power. Gentle, quite sections are few and far between when Amplifier are playing but UFOs, another from the debut album is one. By now the stage was more often than not enveloped with dry ice, giving the lighting a spectral look. The power was back with Fall Of The Empire and, with Charlie making more and more frequent excursions away from his enclave of instruments, the four guitarists could be seen squaring up as though battle-lines had been drawn across the stage. The set ended with a combination of the old, Panzer, and the new, Where The River Goes. The latter consists of repetitive lyrics over atmospheric guitars and pounding bass and, while you suspect it is eventually going to explode it actually builds more slowly than you expect, using speed over gradually increasing power to fantastic effect.

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Amplifier

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Returning to the stage to acknowledge the shouts for more, Sel explains that this has been the “worst gig” in his twenty years of gigging because the band basically “can’t hear anything.” Funny, I was led to believe that in-ear monitors were better than stage ones. With Alexander Redhead quipping that he didn’t know before tonight that he could “play bass entirely using his sense of smell” it was up to the audience to convince them that the performance had been better than the band seemed to think. With curfew time approaching, one of the two encore tracks was dropped, leaving oldie Airborne, the most atmospheric track of the evening as the sole extra. Appropriately the band gave it everything, with Sel and Charlie literally, as well as musically, bouncing off each other. Encore complete, Sel took the time to jump off stage and acknowledge everybody in the front row, either with a hand-clasp or embrace, a gesture that made nearly getting ear-bleeds from standing too close to the speakers almost worth it.

The audience wasn’t bad for a gig at The Duchess, well into three figures (just like last time) and the merchandise table seemed to be doing a brisk trade. Hopefully that means that, as well as this not ending up being Amplifier’s last UK tour, they will return to York on future tours.

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About Ian

Regular gig-goer in York, both to see local and touring bands. Huge music fan, with more CDs than my wife thinks any one person should own. I also collect American comics, read a lot of SF and fantasy and am a season-ticket holder at Leeds United.
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