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Amplifier is a rarity: a prog rock band with no synths. Instead of spacey interludes and jazz departures, Amplifier finds kinship in the underground metal scene. That they have toured with both Opeth and Porcupine Tree ought to tell you where this is going. With nothing but a stripped down trio of guitar, bass and drums, Amplifier constructs thick, deceptively dense walls of sound with effects pedals, sampling loops and enough feedback to vibrate the roof down. But they never lose sight of the melody, and even in their most aggressive attacks, there is a serenity and controlled elegance to the cacophony.

Hailing from Manchester, Amplifier originally signed with small British label Music for Nations and released their eponymous first album. When Sony soon bought the label, they let Amplifier, a band with no name recognition or industry pull, fall into limbo. Thus their album was never distributed in the US and is still extremely difficult to find. For those that can acquire this bit of sunken treasure, the rewards might change how you listen to British rock.

Dealing with familiar topics like science fiction, flying and LSD, prog rock fans can easily appreciate the themes floating through the album. If there is a weak point of the album, the lyrics aren’t terribly original. But the approach is uniquely buoyant, with the band bringing their sense of grandeur to the phenomena of electricity and industrialism, singing about the power of rock and roll to move mountains.

The real draw is in those thick, pulsating waves of sound. Guitars haven’t sounded this big since Zeppelin took us to Kashmir and Amplifier ought to be played on nothing but the best sound systems, turned up to eleven, to reveal all the complexities. It’s wondrous to hear lead singer/guitarist Sel Balamir loop himself, sometimes building up impossibly massive rumbles of power chords. On tracks like ‘Airbourne’, the band builds to a roaring climax of angular, conflicting rhythms, a scream that subsides only long enough to fool you into thinking the song might be fading out. Within the blink of an eye, the song turns 180 and everything falls into a lock step for the real finale, an outro that sounds like what Tool might do if they just relaxed and riffed for a minute between tracks.

‘One Great Summer’ sounds big enough to fill arenas and combines powerful confidence with nostalgic fantasy, a lovely contradiction, like hippies playing power metal. ‘Panzer’ toys with time signatures and and accented syncopation. It even has a brief couple measures in the middle where it sounds like the band is somehow playing the music backwards, rewinding and restarting the song. While most of the album goes by at a stately pace, ‘The Consultancy’ opens up with a blaze and paranoid apocalyptic fears.

The album concludes with the singular triumph ‘UFOs’, a song so heroic, so expressive, so majestic, it justifies the difficulty of finding the album. Opening with a gentle low register hum and lightly meandering guitars, it slowly coalesces into a gorgeous floating melody. Not a single note is wasted, it’s all perfectly paced and timed to pull you along as it builds up, sometimes without you even noticing that a new layer or effect has been added. Moving through several moods, it’s a lyrical highpoint of reflection on the album, starting with foreboding warnings of aliens and then delivering some fresh irony to the usually straight-faced seriousness ”And I know better than you know/I’d kill you cause you drive to slow/Aggressive instincts will do us in/Just give us the chance for us to prove it ourselves”. It unfolds in the end into a radiant shower of fireworks as the band pulls out every stop and goes soaring for the ‘vapour trails/Through cotton skies’. It’s the sound of a tiny band, absolutely convinced that rock and roll will change the world and making the biggest noise as they can about it. Their final line in the song (and the album) reveals their unshakable confidence in their message: “We’ll all be waiting for you here… “

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Jellyfish!!!

It’s not a secret that I unabashedly love Floater.  They won’t top any critics top 1o lists or appeal to the Portland hipster crowd that dotes on the Decemberists and The Shins, but Floater is doing something right. Over 17 years, they’ve never signed a major record deal, never received significant radio play, been the subject of frequent ridicule in local publications, had minimal promotional abilities  and they can still pack the Northwest’s largest dedicated music venues. Their secret lies in the live show, combining metal, psychedelia, and old fashioned rock and roll.  It’s exhausting, cathartic and the crowds feel like family gatherings of misfits and seekers. You don’t go to a Floater show to forget your troubles, you go to dispel them.

Their newest album ‘Wake’ is their attempt to capture that live energy in the studio. ‘Wake’ is concise, clocking in at about 45 minutes, so there’s scarcely a wasted moment. It maintains a fast pace throughout, packing in 12 tracks that rip by at an exhausting rate. The band has stated that this album is meant for road trips, and they’re right, it sounds best in the car, with a couple friends singing along. And sing along they will, since Floater has a surprise: they’ve gone pop. And therein is the strength and weakness of ‘Wake’.

Pop music is easily accessible. You’ll find yourself shouting the choruses on ‘Concentrate’ and ‘Let It Go’ before the song has finished playing for the first time. But pop music is also simple and frequently shallow, and so songs like ‘Wondering’ and ‘You Taught Me’ lack the emotional depth that I’ve come to associate with the piercing, sometimes devastating songs in their catalog. The verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pattern happens far too often and so many songs blend together.

Things open with a bang on ‘Concentrate’, a crystal clear ethereal guitar that sounds like you just stumbled on a late era Pink Floyd b-side. But in trademark Floater fashion, the song quickly shifts and veers into a  U2 War-era anthem, with guitarist Dave delivering a glorious outro solo and singer Rob’s impassioned whoa-oh-ohs. It’s a perfect first track that announces: turn it up, and get moving.

But things bog down over the next few songs, as the pop sound gives in to simple riffs and trite lyrics. You can’t fault the band for trying, since the energy never flags for a moment, only the quality of songwriting. ‘Wondering’ is barely over 2 minutes, and hits a low (or  high) point of pop accessibility.

Midway through the album is ‘The Simplest Way of Life’, the crowning track of ‘Wake’. It’s heavy, ominous sounding and the lyrics are sharp and delivered in a low rumble of a whisper giving way to the stunning chorus. It’s a masterful, mercurially shifting track and also marks as one of the sexiest songs they’ve ever recorded. Seriously, try dancing with your significant other to this one. It’s HOT.

‘White Dress’ radically shifts the tone, as the album pauses for a slow burn. For a moment, Floater drops the pop aspirations and returns to the heartbreaking, sometimes shocking songwriting of the past. “She looked so still/ When she quietly said/ ‘Please take my life'” will send shivers up your spine.

The rest of album sticks to the formula. ‘Enough’ brings back some grinding psychedelia and ‘Killing Time’ ends with a mosh pit frenzy. The album closes on another high point with ‘Let It Go’. The pop aspirations finally synthesize perfectly as the Floaterized soaring rock and roll melds into something giddy and upbeat, with guitar solos and sing along refrain matching the tone of the song.

Your opinion of ‘Wake’ will probably depend on your opinion of Floater in general. If you like their recent trend toward 80’s anthemic rock and roll, ‘Wake’ is a natural progression. If your love for Floater stopped with the grinding snarl of  ‘Cinema’, then ‘Wake’ will seem like a desperate ploy to sellout. If you’re new to Floater, then give it a listen. It’s exhilarating and proves that after 17 years, they’ve maintained a commitment to expanding their sound and keeping the crowd surging.

To hear tracks from ‘Wake’, go to http://floater.com/. The first 3 songs in the music player that pops up are all from the new album.