Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Astronaut Dismantles HAL EP
Rating: 4/5

From this Extended Play, the follow-up to their début Amplifier, one might never have guessed at the problems bubbling below the surface. Granted, their début had a troubled birth, but arrive it did, being later re-released on SPV. The Astronaut Dismantles HAL, however, was their first set of original material for the label, and it builds on the melodic inclinations of the band showcased on the first record, without sacrificing any of the music's complexity, or indeed length. The six (seven if you include secret track 'Scarecrows') tracks are as long as an album, and there's a gratifying cohesion and fluency to the package as a whole. 

From the very first note in 'Continuum', Amplifier play the space-rock card, with Sel's voice staying subdued in tone before he explodes forth with the perplexing 'chorus' break of “JUST LISTEN!”. In fact, despite its substantial run-time, there's something joyously pop about this cut, evidenced on the surreal middle-eight vocal crescendo of “que sera sera, whatever will be, will be!” where once again vocals cut the guitar wash and magnificently ride atop Amplifier's multi-amp squall. 

Other highlights include the Zeppelin-esque stomp of 'Into The Space Age' and riff-heavy single 'Everyday Combat', which has since passed into fan-favourite territory, frequently clamoured for at shows. For me though it's the aforementioned 'Scarecrows' that has the currency to go head-to-head with 'Continuum' and 'Everyday Combat'. An acoustic-led number, it shows Amplifier thoroughly out of their comfort zone, stripped-back and at some of their most emotionally affecting. They wouldn't employ an acoustic in the same way until The Octopus' 'Oscar Night', and even then the subtle atmospherics achieved on 'Scarecrows' would be lost. 

Though Insider undoubtedly had its moments, it's hard to see how Amplifier ended up there based on this release; stories of label pressure, time- and budget- constraints aren't hard to dredge up, so if anything it once again vindicates their decision to go The Octopus alone, as if the quality of that album weren't reason enough on its own. The Astronaut Dismantles HAL is a worthy, indeed essential addition to Amplifier's body of work, and it is too often overlooked for being 'just' an EP. Call it a 'mini-album', call it what you like; just don't make the mistake of missing out on it. 

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