photo manipulation & text by nacrowe
i should start off stating that i am among the CONVERTED.
between my dad and i, we have several guitar AMPLIFIER by the likes of FENDER, MARSHALL, AMPEG, SUPRO, VOX, MESA-BOOGIE, and even a vintage SUNN. i get the appeal of running a guitar straight into a good AMPLIFIER. its because of this predisposition that i am a bit confused by the recent AMPIRE: THE SOUND OF MUSIC (2018, DNR PRODUCTIONS) documentary which is supposedly about guitar amplification but really is about the CULT / OBSESSION / FETISHIZATION surrounding it.
the conceit of this film is one of combatting the recent wave of DIGITAL MODELING TECHNOLOGY that has transformed the AMPLIFICATION INDUSTRY, both in terms of high and low price points. even beginning guitarists through low wattage MODELING AMPLIFIERS now have access to a myriad of quality sounds and effects unheard of ten years ago at an entry level price point. likewise, with the advent of studio-quality MODELING / PROFILING PLATFORMS like KEMPER, HELIX and AXE FX, touring and recording musicians have access to the tones of their existing AMPLIFIER collections in a more USABLE, TRAVEL-WORTHY package.
the message of this film is one of advocacy for the EMOTIONAL and PSYCHIC, almost ALCHEMICAL, connection between player, guitar and AMPLIFIER (whether tube or solid state). adherents to said worldview include an impressive list of interview participants such as PETER BUCK (R.E.M.), RICK NIELSEN (CHEAP TRICK), ALEX LIFESON (RUSH), JOHN 5 (K.D. LANG, MARILYN MANSON, ROB ZOMBIE), ROBBIE KRIEGER (THE DOORS), PAUL GILBERT (RACER X, MR. BIG), PAT METHANY, MIKE KENEALLY (FRANK ZAPPA, STEVE VAI), PETE THORN (CHRIS CORNELL), LITA FORD (THE RUNAWAYS), TOMMY HENRIKSEN (ALICE COOPER) and JOE BONAMASSA among others.
here is the thing: i dont buy the argument.
a more thoughtful approach would be to actual explain in some detail what a traditional tube AMPLIFIER actually consists of and how it technically functions. educate your audience. maybe throw in a little history about its TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT and throw some shine to past and present AMPLIFIER INNOVATORS like LEO FENDER, JIM MARSHALL, MICHAEL SOLDANO, DAVID REEVES, HARTLEY PEAVEY, EVERET HULL, REINHOLD BOGNER, RANDALL SMITH, LYNDON LANEY, DAVE FRIEDMAN, CLIFFORD COOPER, PETER DIEZEL, DON RANDALL and HOWARD ALEXANDER DUMBLE among countless other engineers. better yet, instead of seeing the incoming wave of technology and various techniques regarding onstage miking of low wattage AMPS to massive PA systems as competition, maybe get a little PHILOSOPHICAL about how these are all tools for conveying a musical idea. and they all have their place.
AMPLIFIERS are cool, dont get me wrong. but they arent the end-all-be-all of musical expression. arguing against incoming technology is a surefire way of rendering yourself an ANACHRONISM, which is sadly what some of these advocates have exposed themselves to be. others seem to embrace change which is where i stand. this film is essentially a variation on the topic of the relative merits of ANALOG vs DIGITAL equipment and the false attribution of AUTHENTICITY to the mix that was tread notably in DAVE GROHL's SOUND CITY (review linked HERE) documentary.
AMPIRE: THE SOUND OF MUSIC is an INTRIGUING and FUN film worth watching but the argument is a bit TEDIOUS and SANCTIMONIOUS at times, even for someone who absolutely adores both traditional tube and solid state guitar AMPLIFIERS like myself.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
due to their complex songs written in odd time signatures with with lyrics that had literary ambition, RUSH has had a cult following since the 1970s and are very much an acquired taste. some people can't get past GEDDY LEE's vocals, others find them pretentious.
in their documentary RUSH: BEHIND THE LIGHTED STAGE (BANGER FILMS, 2010) directors (and fellow CANADIANS) SCOTT MCFADYEN and SAM DUNN lovingly showcase the trajectory of their career both from the perspective of the band and their dedicated fans, which include prominent musicians like TRENT REZNOR (NINE INCH NAILS), TAYLOR HAWKINS (FOO FIGHTERS), VINNIE PAUL (PANTERA), LES CLAYPOOL (PRIMUS), DANNY CAREY (TOOL), ZAKK WYLDE (OZZY OSBOURNE, BLACK LABEL SOCIETY), SEBASTIAN BACH (SKID ROW), MIKE PORTNOY (DREAM THEATER), KIRK HAMMETT (METALLICA), TIM COMMERFORD (RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE), JASON MCGERR (DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE), JIMMY CHAMBERLAIN and BILLY CORGAN (SMASHING PUMPKINS) as well as contemporaries like GENE SIMMONS (KISS) and MICK BOX (URIAH HEEP) and entertainment industry heavyweights like JACK BLACK (TENACIOUS D), MATT STONE (SOUTH PARK) and CLIFF BURSTEIN (Q PRIME MANAGEMENT). for some it was their technical wizardry on their instruments that drew them in while for others it was their expansive palette of sounds which mirrored thematic depths of their lyrics that inspired such devotion. what comes across is their genuine affinity for the honest, authentic nature of these three unassuming, well-adjusted CANADIANS.
in GEDDY LEE and ALEX LIFESON you have two second generation immigrant kids that found each other in middle school in the suburbs outside TORONTO. LEE was the son of HOLOCAUST survivors of POLISH descent while LIFESON the son of a YUGOSLAVIAN (SERBIAN) family the immigrated shortly after WWII. in both you had families that instilled hard work and kindness, which in other words meant they had a typical CANADIAN upbringing. i feel like this was a key to their success since, ironically, it freed them from worrying about success. they had a balanced sense of identity rooted from an early age that made them take the successes and failures of their unusual career in stride with a sense of humor, but also intense focus on the craft itself. a very strong puritan ethic seems to mark them.
there is a definite sub-narrative throughout the film that gets into the idea of RUSH as a cultural phenomena and the idea of not being "cool" and being an "outcast" that arguably defines the fan experience. most of the famous musicians (interestingly the majority of them being notable bassists and drummers) seem to have a confrontational approach to this subject as they dismissed that and liked them because they liked them. REZNOR in particular expands on his appreciation for the choices made by the band in terms of their inclusion of technology and sense of arrangement to incorporate an expansive set of instruments (including the keyboards, synthesizers, etc). the one voice i could have left without hearing predictably was CORGAN who seemed to whine about how RUSH wasn't properly appreciated by the music critics. at times it seems like he was projecting himself and the legacy of his own band onto RUSH in a visceral way which was annoying and completely self-serving. you really get the sense that RUSH don't care about people in opposition or indifferent to the group. their concern is their own sense of creative evolution and those that appreciate it. CORGAN's whining just seemed completely counterproductive and i resent him for it.
that aside one of the things i most appreciated about the band was their sense of mutual respect and genuine love for one another. this was seen when the uncomfortable talk about when drummer NEIL PEART's wife and daughter passed away separately and in quick succession. the band gave him his space and were willing to hang it up. this dedication continues now after his passing from cancer. RUSH is GEDDY LEE, ALEX LIFESON and NEIL PEART. period.
quickly about PEART, they go into his awkwardness growing up and discovery of drums as a means of self-expression but for me the most interesting thing about his career was how in his later years he took drum lessons from jazz icon FREDDIE GRUBER and effectively altered his playing style. that amazes me his devotion to evolving and learning new aspects to his instrument that continued until his passing. even when he was celebrated as one of the greatest living drummers, he retaught himself from the ground up. just so inspiring.
if you don't like RUSH, i get it. but even so this film may be worth your time, even if it is a love letter to the greatest CANADIAN band by a CANADIAN production company which received grants from the CANADIAN government to make this production happen. i recognize all that and still recommend it.