Review and Interview @ Witchwood, Autumn 2003 by Geraint Rees

It’s a busy time for Manchester based rock trio Amplifier right now. Having been hidden away largely unnoticed in the underbelly of Manchester’s rock scene for nearly four years. It seems with the release of their self-titled debut album due out on Music for Nations in October and with an increasing clamour amongst the press upon witnessing their recent live shows. Amplifier might just be about to explode into the mainstream in a big way.

It is refreshing then that their approach to playing a smaller Witchwood venue tonight is just as intense and energetic as a couple of weeks prior to this, when they rammed out Manchester’s Roadhouse. ‘We’d only be practising if we weren’t playing here’ bassist Neil Mahoney says philosophically. It’s a work ethic that becomes increasingly apparent upon speaking to the band and also when you see them live, where they shift through time changes and dynamic shifts like a well oiled machine taking you to points where you think it’s spinning out of control then pulling you in at the last minute before you can catch your breath. The advertising for tonight’s gig has been by the bands own admission pretty low key and as we sit back stage waiting for the support to finish, vocalist Sel Balamir arrives back from the bar with a grin on his face, ‘have you seen the grannies out there’ he says, the rest of the band crack up. It seems the youngish looking support act have brought along most of their family members some of whom could be in for a shock.


Amplifier take to the stage with a rumble of bass, that starts as a quiet drone and builds to ear splitting volumes before erupting into the killer groove of 'Motorhead', the first song off the new album and first up tonight. It demonstrates perfectly the bands knack of producing a killer groove, dense and dark like Zeppelin, but stripped to the bone it’s effect is immediate, dragging people onto the dance floor. It also highlights singer Sel Balamir’s ability to veer from the intensely personal to the universal, as he sings,  ‘Music fills my empty bones, sometimes I feel it’s the only place I’ve left to go’. 

What is also instantly noticeable about Amplifier is their dark, edgy, intensity, combined with the sheer volume, which hits you like a punch in the gut. Tonight however it’s some of the quieter moments off the album that really shine. ‘One Great Summer’ drifts out of the speakers on the back of guitar washes reminiscent of early Verve whilst ‘Old Movies’ is both delicate and haunting as Balamir’s darkly tripped out lyrics speak of the ‘shadows of dead souls‘ to a moody backwash of reversed sounds. The new single ‘Consultancy’ due out in November ('03) fires along at a frenetic pace and seems a sensible single choice with its highly infectious guitar riff. Elsewhere older songs such as ‘UFO’s’ and ‘On/Off’ sound stronger than ever whilst the heavy rock of ‘Panzer’ shows the band are more than capable crossing over to the metal kids. 

A couple of days after the gig I take the opportunity to talk with bassist Neil Mahoney about the live show and the recording of their new album. Having grown up in Dublin, Neil is unsurprisingly perhaps the most talkative member of the group. He comes across as down to earth, confident, extremely proud of the work the band have put in on the album, but with a sense of humour that allows him to admit his fondness for the sheer, ‘fuck off factor’ of Lemmy’s bass playing, when I ask why they have a song called 'Motorhead'.

I ask him first about the bands live performances, suggesting that the band seem almost locked in their own world when they play and that there is clearly close interaction between the band members on stage. He nods in agreement adding ‘What we do can be quite involved and it has come from us three spending hours and hours in a room creating this sound together. It all just comes from practice, if people like it then that’s great but  we are trying to make the music we want to make.’

He also adds that since the onset of dance music people have come to expect a more continuous and atmospheric experience from live shows, ‘ When we play we have certain building blocks to create peaks and troughs and we try to keep the mood throughout, so there aren’t many big gaps between songs, otherwise you lose the vibe’.  It is an effective approach and one which demonstrates Amplifier’s willingness to look beyond the confines of rock music for inspiration. In fact it was a disillusionment with and reaction against much of what was happening in rock music around the time of their formation, that fuelled their desire to do something different, he insists. 

The album itself is an incredibly accomplished debut drawing heavily on classic rock influences such as Floyd and Zeppelin, but re-interpreting them for the modern ear that has heard metal, grunge and acid house since then. There is also an experimental edge to it with loops, effects and samples coming into play. However Neil is quick to dismiss any suggestion that this came about in the studio sessions. ‘Sel spends hours in our own studio just playing with sounds and nearly everything you hear on the album comes from there, recreating what we do in our own place’.

It becomes clear that they spend a hell of a lot of time practicing and experimenting, with Sel often orchestrating the creative process. Neil expands on this, ‘I’ll come in one day and play a bassline or even just a sound and Sel will pick it out of the air and say that’s it.  Then we’ll jam and gradually it will evolve over time into something complete.’

The actual recording he describes as largely enjoyable for him, with Music for Nations willing to give them a free license and having seemingly little involvement. The pressures he says were greater on Sel Balamir, who not only played guitars and sang but also jointly produced the album with Steve Lyon. ‘There were times towards the end of the recording, when Sel was at the end of his tether and making himself ill. I had to come back and do a seventeen hour session because there was a slight problem with tunings and it was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life but we were determined to get the songs out there in absolutely the best possible way we could.’ Neil concludes.

It’s this determination and also the bands drive to push boundaries and try different things, that make them an exciting prospect. The bands sound is certainly hard to pigeonhole - something they seem keen to avoid and with such a wide range of influences it’s easy to see why. Led Zeppelin, Frank Black, Heavy Vegetable, Soundgarden,  along with electronic music all crop up casually in conversation, yet it’s hard to tell which have a direct influence as their sound has a unique and authentic quality of it’s own. The album may not be crammed with single material in the eyes of some record executives, but it is an exhilarating experience, lyrically mysterious with it’s whispers of amphetamine comedowns and ghostly apparitions, it draws you back in for another listen. The band don’t sit comfortably in any scene or sound but this very difference could be their strength particularly with Music For Nations behind them and a growing amount of positive press now surrounding the band. The time might just be right for Amplifier to gain the wider recognition their hard work deserves.

Amplifier are set to release their debut for Music For Nations : The Consultancy b/w Glory Electricity will be released on November 3rd 2003 as the bands debut  single. Amplifier's stunning eponymous debut album will follow in the New Year (2004).

Amplifier's Official Website

Music For Nations website

witchwood photos by : geraint rees words by : geraint rees :: chairsmissing / 25th summer / b&w pictures (c) + by tina mcclelland / photo2000



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