Long running specialty metal label Century Media Records has been acquired by Sony Music Entertainment for 17 Million dollars. Although not yet confirmed by the label themselves, this news has been long rumored and now reported by Music Business Worldwide, a reputable industry source of news.
Launching the careers of countless commercial and critically successful rock and metal groups, the label was founded in 1988 by Robert Kampf with co-owner Oliver Withöft coming on a year and a half later. Withöft died in 2014.
Century Media’s parent company, The Century Family has several sub-labels under its umbrella such as Another Century, InsideOut Music, People Like You, and Superball.
When they come round to writing the definitive history of progressive rock music in the UK I hope they can find a nice spot, lovingly curated, for Mancunians Amplifier. Not that we should be consigning them to the annals of history anytime soon – anything but – but Amplifier seem to be one of those acts that are held dear to the heart of the already converted, but have yet to make the crossover to broader appeal. It’s hard to understand why as they have already delivered, from the sprawling masterpiece The Octopus (Independent) to the more introspective yet equally worthy Echo Street (KScope), some sublime, intelligent and inventive music.
Mystoria (Superball) doesn’t eschew all of the idea-conjuring that they are renowned for but it has a determined sense of purpose and an effervescent undercurrent that will certainly cement their reputation and should, if there is anything like justice in this tribal, social media dominated world of ours, see them reach audiences and corners of the globe yet to be converted to Mr Balamir and co.
Kicking off with the none-more-prog-rock instrumental of ‘Magic Carpet’, a blend of Focus meets Muse, it’s a gauntlet throwing statement of intent. Amplifier have rediscovered ROCK, kids, and we should all be grateful. ‘Black Rainbow’ continues in similar vein, all hard driven rhythms and evocative lyrics and you can feel yourself air drumming from about 28 seconds in (perhaps that was just me, then). ‘Named After Rocky’ sounds a bit what might happen if early Genesis had met Led Zep for a proper drink. This, for the avoidance of any doubt, is a very good thing.
‘Open Up’ is a seriously moody buzzy riffathon, akin to what would happen if Josh Homme had gotten his stoner rock hands on Matt Bellamy’s muse and, if you will, Matt Bellamy’s Muse. Highlight of the album is the brilliant ‘OMG’. It has a signature riff that Rush would kill for and a deep groove which echoes Led Zeppelin just at the point where they became their most stately and imperious. There’s a swirling pot of ideas being thrown around here, too. This is what Amplifier excel at, the musical plate spinning, often at precarious rates but with not one piece of porcelain being dropped.
Less obviously ambitious than The Octopus, Mystoria appears to be Amplifier’s attempt to distil their essence into manageable slices of aural pie. As Oliver Twist, would surely have said, please Mr Balamir , sir, can I have some more? Satisfying then, culinary friends.
With new album ‘Mystoria’ showcasing a new direction for the eclectic Amplifier, frontman Sel Balamir fielded the Ghost Cult interrogation and emphatically told of how his band are more grunge than prog…
“For me Mystoria is like The Melvins meets Crosby,Stills & Nash” is how vocalist and guitarist Sel Balamir describes Manchester alt. masters Amplifier’s upcoming release, the band’s fifth full length, when talking about the album’s fuzziness married with harmony. It has to be said that Mystoria (Superball) is quite a departure from what we may expect of Amplifier, moving towards a more direct sound akin to grunge and the more typical echelons of rock music.
A lot of people will see the comment above and start running for the hills, but it is important to remember that Amplifier have never been a group to repeat themselves. From the sprawling prog journey of Octopus (self-released) to the more stripped down follow up Echo Street (KScope), Amplifier have always had a knack for trying out different styles and sounds.
As calculated as it appears, however, Balamir dismisses the notion of a preemptive plan behind it all. “It’s not conscious, it’s just more demonstrative of our powers of attention getting shorter and shorter” he says jestfully. “I think it’s just different kinds of people you hang around with, certainly for me, is the undercurrent of what changes sound and stuff. Because you take on board people’s opinions and what they find interesting and they make you interested and think about things and ways you may never have thought about before.”
Time and personal constraints also prove a factor. “The Octopus was a massive sprawling record because we wanted to make a record that no record company would ever put out. Echo Street was different again because we didn’t have four years to make a massive record, we decided we were going to make a record then made one the next week, we hadn’t written it or anything!
“Up until Mystoria all our records were quite complicated and with Mystoria we just wanted to make a record that wasn’t so emotionally complicated, it was just simple.”
Mystoria also differs from its predecessors in the methods of its recording, being rehearsed to perfection prior to a quick recording, which conversely has an effect on its outcome: “It’s basically a live album, there are hardly any overdubs on it, so it’s basically a live record. For me I can hear the difference, there’s a lot more space on the record. There’s my guitar, there’s Steve’s (Durose) guitar, drums and bass and that’s it, no layers of feedback and texture which featured deeply in other records, I think it’s a lot more in your face record because of that.”
The aforementioned Steve Durose (of Oceansize fame), along with Alex Redhead joined Amplifier since Echo Street’s recording as the band shifted to a four piece. This in itself also aided Mystoria’s final sound. “The other guys beefed out the harmonies, and certainly there are a lot of harmonies on Mystoria. It was designed to take advantage of those vibes.”
Previous album Echo Street was released under license by prog label KScope whilst Mystoria sees Amplifier associate with a different record company, Superball. “Echo Street fits on KScope’s roster. It wouldn’t fit on Superball’s roster and the kind of thing they do and conversely Mystoria wouldn’t fit on Kscope. They don’t really do straight-ahead rock bands and for me Mystoria is like a rock album, not a prog album, so Superball is much more suitable. And they are more piratical as well, a bit more dusty knuckles to me, than Kscope.”
A move away from being associated to a true champion of modern progressive rock to a label with little association with the genre whatsoever may seem a strange move to some, but Balamir has before been quick to dismiss his band as simply a prog band. “We are a mongrel band, we’re citizens of the world, we like all types of music. That element of listening to Pink Floyd is as strong in me as the element of listening to Yes and listening to Joan Baez. We live at a time of with a rich cultural heritage that has been recorded. I’ve got records that my parents bought because they were amazing records and they still are amazing, so it’s no wonder that we don’t fit into any pigeonhole because we have never pigeonholed our own tastes.”
In fact the “prog” tag that Amplifier have been lumped with in the past is clearly something that Balamir is disapproving of : ”As soon as you get that prog attachment, for people who don’t know, they think they are just going to get Yes or Rush, and I love both of those bands, but I wouldn’t say they are representative of what my band sounds like. My band sounds more like Nirvana to me than those bands. I don’t think we are prog at all, just an interesting rock band.” Interestingly however, despite Balamir’s issue with the prog tag, Amplifier by transforming throughout their history actually offer the most progressive of elements themselves. “And there’s the irony. Most prog bands aren’t progressive at all, they are conservative.”
Especially with recent ties with Kscope, it goes without saying that a large proportion of Amplifier’s fanbase will be more prog orientated so was Balamir concerned with what such fans would make of the new album? “As soon as you start trying to shape your records to what you think the fans will make of it then you are on a steep, slippery slope. We just do music as an expression, rather than just trying to impress people.”
This being said however, we can mostly expect fans of such music to have a diverse range of musical tastes shown in prog’s all-encompassing umbrella of sonic variants. For Amplifier this is reflected in their (especially recent) presence on festivals and bills of the eclectic variety; from Damnation festival, to Beyond The Redshift, the Kscope anniversary shows and others. “We were talking about this the other day, that all these festivals we play, we never seem to fit in to any of them…I think Amplifier are one of those bands that people who are into different musical styles there is a space for us in their taste.
“We play heavy music so its not weird for is to be on bills with heavy bands. We are there because we are a different colour to other bands that are there. We are an option if you want to take a break from speed metal.”
Speaking of bills, Amplifer have been announced as support for returning cult grungers Kerbdog. A move that only a few months ago would have seemed baffling now makes so much sense. “We are all about the grunge. It would be nice to play with a proper rock band. Nothing complicated.” And from this it seems Amplifier may have found a firm new home. A band renowned for transforming and shifting from album to album seems to have settled into a groove at least for the time being. “That’s where we want to be and stay. If there was one thing that would be our manifesto now it would be just lean and mean. That’s what its all about so playing with Kerbdog, will be good because it will be simple.”
Since c.2005, Leicester (UK)’s Maybeshewill have curated their art in that strange netherworld of post-rock with a sense of style, passion and insight that is to be applauded. Fair Youth (Superball), their latest opus, cements and embellishes an already enviable reputation for compelling music that initially appears throwaway and easily dispensable but, following repeated listens, reveals genuine warmth, depth and soul.
Fair Youth, like its predecessors, is an album of instrumental tracks, each with their own structure, melody and percussive dynamics. Surprisingly for an album of this kind, it works remarkably well as a whole piece. There isn’t a narrative arc beloved of progressive music fans but there is a discernible ebb and flow to the record that keeps you hooked from the off. Maybeshewill have an insightful understanding how one’s own mind can wander and drift whilst listening to music. Self-evidently, the absence of a vocalist makes it more challenging to give a straightforward appreciation of the themes and “meaning” of these songs but, actually, this doesn’t matter as they have enough collective intelligence and credit their audience with enough intelligence to discern the meaning through the physical act and pleasure of actually listening closely to the music they have created.
At first listen, you get the sense that this might be a band in a much happier place than suggested by, for example, Not For The Want of Trying’s ‘He Films The Clouds Part 2’ or the mournful ‘Words for Arabella’ on I Was Here For a Moment. The album’s lead off track, ‘Amber’, with a heightened presence of keyboards, seems to reinforce this. However, repeated listens suggest that the initial impression may not be quite right and that there remains a deep melancholy, a melancholy that is being masked by the ostensibly cheery melodies that we are initially grabbed by.
Whatever this writer’s sense of the album’s “meaning” is largely irrelevant. What is unquestionable is solid evidence of a band that have continued to grow in confidence and style, a band with an unerring ability to conjure addictive tunes and melodies from their proverbial locker. By way of example, the insistent beat that architects the addictive ‘All Things Transient’, a simple hook repeated and built upon to a thrilling crescendo. Similarly, the simple keyboard that drives the charming ‘Asiatic’or the plaintive ‘Permanence’ both give credence to the view that the band could do this sort of thing in their sleep if they wanted to, such is the apparent effortlessness of it all.
Fair Youth has plenty of hooks and musical vignettes to keep even those with the shortest of attention spans enraptured and beguiled over the course of its forty or so minutes of aural bliss. Fair Youth is a terrific album, the sort of record you can recommend to your friends and, perhaps, even one or two of your enemies.
Former …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead member Jason Reece is well known for being an Indie Rock enfant-terrible, destroying equipment and playing squalling discordant alt rock á la Sonic Youth. Yet with Midnight Masses, Reece has looked to produce more gentle, soulful material which still beats with the same black heart of his main act.
Manifesting in 2008, Midnight Masses have been labelled with many genres such as ‘Gothic Americana’ and ‘Grunge Gospel Folk Rock’. Truly there is no easy way to encapsulate this band into a catchy genre sound bite, and they are all the better for it. Singer Autry Fulbright’s take on his band’s multifaceted sound is “The sound of a city… In the middle of a desert” whatever that means.
Amassing over 14 members, Midnight Masses weave hazy psychedelic landscapes with some 1960’s atmospherics, Gospel vocal passages and Krautrock textures. Think Josh Homme, Neu! and Unkle jamming under an isolated desert sky and you’ll be close. As experimental as this all sounds, there are some very catchy tunes on Departures (Superball/Century Media),‘All Goes Black’ has a beautifully catchy chorus despite the melancholy overtones that permeate its every nuance. Since Fulbright wrote their debut to cope with the loss of his father, several other members of the group also experienced the loss of loved ones which accounts for the largely solemn feel.
Introspective and indulgent, painting with a myriad of styles Departures occasionally loses its way. When following the path of gothic alt rock on ‘Am I A Nomad’ or the surprisingly upbeat ‘Clap Your Hands’ provide a much levity from navel gazing to produce moments of true beauty. Undeniably talented, the overall impact is blighted by a lack of cohesion, leaving the mind able to wonder aimlessly when it should be focussed on the journey ahead.
Grief and loss have made some truly extraordinary records, yet the lack of clear direction towards either big city lights of earthy rural darkness leaves us somewhere in no man’s land.