There's a lot of expectations surrounding Echo Street, the new album from highly regarded UK progressive rock act Amplifier. However, fans anticipating anything particularly venturesome are set for a surprise.
Amplifier formed in Manchester, UK in 1999 and was originally an arty alt-rock and metal band frequently dosed with cosmic rock for otherworldly effect. Much like Kscope label-mates and similar sonic kin Anathema, Amplifier has shifted its sound over the course of its career, easing back on the metal to become a progressive rock ensemble -- with a keen ear for energetic melodies. The band's 2011 double album, The Octopus (self-released, with 20,000-plus copies sold), brought Amplifier a round of well-deserved applause, and saw the band settling into its distinctive wall of sound. With the band expanding to a four-piece line-up for its new album, there's much expectation surrounding Echo Street, although fans anticipating something akin to The Octopus's venturesome climate are set for a surprise.
Following up The Octopus was never going to be an easy task for Amplifier. It was the kind of sprawling album that could easily leave a band’s creative fuel tank empty, and its subsequent acclaim inevitably casts a long shadow. Amplifier has sought to remedy both those situations by not even trying to "follow up" The Octopus at all. Instead, vocalist/guitarist Sel Balamir looked to his vault of tunes written in the '90s to find material and inspiration for the band’s new album, Echo Street, making it clear that he's not interested in the band repeating itself.
Produced by Balamir, and mixed by Chris Sheldon (Foo Fighters/Biffy Clyro), Echo Street does boast the tweaked guitars of Amplifier’s past work, and -- befitting the band's progressive pursuits -- lengthy and lush tracks. The magnificent opening trio of songs, "Matmos", "The Wheel", and (album highlight) "Extra Vehicular", are pristine, with sophisticated arrangements combining melancholic pop and meticulously sculpted prog. However, the bulk of songs on the new album are simpler, more stripped back, and definitely mellower than before.
"Where the River Goes" ambles into three-part vocal-harmonizing country rock territory, and "Mary Jane" has a whimsical melody kicked around by some retro-rock anthemic riffs, but those seeking animated tunes or that previously mentioned wall of sound may well be left feeling confused, or even let down. Tracks like "Between Today & Yesterday", "Echo Street", and "Paris in Spring" are somewhat forgettable, taking away from what is a glorious three-song opening. Although Amplifier certainly isn't obliged to repeat the long-form adventurism of The Octopus -- having proven its songwriting abilities tenfold on that album -- it does need to come up with songs that are captivating. Problem is, while the band has trawled though older tracks, rendering them into new forms, those forms are, at their worst, generic.
That's not to say that Amplifier isn't passionate or sincere in its delivery on Echo Street. The band makes good use of the new blood in its ranks -- bassist Alex Redhead and former Oceansize guitarist Steve Durose join Amplifier mainstays Balamir and drummer Matt Brobin. There's no faulting the actual playing on Echo Street, but Balamir and Durose are capable of laying out engaging riffing -- both complex and rousingly rhythmic -- and there's a scarcity of both. Where the two guitarists do indulge in some fine work, and when the band leans on its strengths -- as it does on that opening trio of tracks -- there's a grand sense of the dynamism inherent in Amplifier's sound. And captivating guitar lines on that trio of songs all feature enlivening crescendos and soloing, along with some heavier guitar interplay and effects that will please fans of Amplifier's previous endeavors. If only the band had carried on.
Echo Street doesn't make for a crushing disappointment, it's more a frustrating release than anything else. The potential for a wonderful sojourn is all there at the start, and where the album seamlessly melds the nostalgic pulse of neo-prog with '90s alt-rock, many fans of immaculate contemporary prog will no doubt be impressed. However, ultimately Echo Street feels too understated, and too restrained. It shows more promise than prowess, which is where the frustration arises, because Amplifier has proven it is capable of far more interesting work than this. Perhaps Amplifier should have looked to the future instead of to the past for inspiration.