1. Titans Clash Aggressively to Keep an Even Score 5:29
2. Sunshine Waters 5:48
3. The Weakening Sound 6:21
4. Tilting the Scales 6:50
5. The Man You Just Became 5:15
6. Man Made Machine 6:18
7. Burn to Something New 5:58
8. In the Centre of an Empty Space 5:31
9. The Recipe 2:31
10. This Is Home 8:17
All tracks: by Westholm & Flink.
Produced by Westholm.
Carl Westholm - piano, synthesizers, theremin
Niclas Flink - lead vocals
Jejo Percovic - drums
Jan Hellman - bass & upright bass
Stefan Fanden - bass & baritone guitars
Ulf Edelonn - electric & acoustic guitars
Jonas Waldefeldt - percussions
Oivin Tronstad - backing vocals
Cia Backman - backing vocals
I remembered Swedish keyboardist Carl Westholm since his remarkable work (in both of the performance and the arrangement departments) on the Abstract Algebra album. Six years later I gladly learned that Carl formed his own project, CARPTREE, along with singer Niclas Flink. I am not much enthusiastic about the outfit's first two releases, though the second one was an improvement. "Man Made Machine" is the third CD by the duo and is their first for Inside Out Music. Related reviews: here and here.
Carptree's previous outing, "Superhero", also featured an expanded lineup, but the participation of most of the session musicians on that album can be regarded as rather symbolical. "Man Made Machine" is a horse of a different color. It's for the first time now that the project has gotten a genuine full-band sound. The very first things that become striking after the initial listening to this CD is the saturation of its sonic palette and, hence, the recognition of the fact that the duo has finally understood the importance of the active attraction of 'essential guests' in the performance process. This time around, Carl's old friend and collaborator, Jejo Percovic, never leaves his acoustic drum set, at the top of the list of improvements, which is too long to put here in its entirety. Well, Mr. Flink seems to be incorrigible in his aspiration to either imitate or, at best, modify Fish's singing (though on the title track he reminds me of Trevor Horn on Yes's Machine Messiah), and the guitar players are as if fearing to do full-fledged solos. But the overall picture is so mesmerizing that only a many-years habit, which cultivated my critical approach to any reviewing material, has allowed me to find those flaws. Overall, there are no weak tracks among the ten songs here, and I have managed to fix my favorite number only upon the second spin. It's titled In the Centre of an Empty Space and is the one consisting mostly of intense and up-tempo arrangements, close to my comprehension of a quality symphonic Prog-Metal. It's follow-up, The Recipe, is, in its turn, the one performed exclusively by the duo. This is a sort of old-fashioned music in the manner of street organ grinders, with only vocals and the sounds of harmonium. The other eight tracks are an orthodox theatric Neo with (in most cases) or without a touch of Metal (The Weakening Sound, The Man You Just Became and Burn to Something New), each of the latter featuring a piano interlude and being quieter / more atmospheric in general. While there are contributions from all of the musicians involved, Carl Westholm's keyboards are clearly dominant, and it's definitely thanks to his approach that the instrumental arrangements manage to avoid sounding derivative, some of the canvases shining with exceptionally original trimmings that can rarely be found within the idiom.
"Man Made Machine" is too good to be a Carptree recording, let the guys forgive me for the joke, unless its hidden meaning is obvious to them. Quite surprisingly, this distinctly dramatic album ends up at a contrasting affirmative note (This Is home). Happy Ending? It seems so. So it's time to put out a White Flag. Done. Cheers. No irony.
VM:September 5, 2005
Carptree - 2005 - "Man Made Machine"
Formed in 1997, CARPTREE is perhaps better described as a project group, rather than a band, the two central figures being Niclas Flinck and Carl Westholm. "Man Made Machine" is the Swedish duo's third album, following "Carptree" (2001) and "Superhero" (2003), neither of which have I heard.
Distant thunder rumbles with the sound of light rain falling as Titans Clash Aggressively to Keep an Even Score begins. Piano plays slowly, joined by Flink's quiet vocal. There is a haunting beauty here, bordering on the edge of melancholy. With the refrain, the music swells to an almost heroic theme, with vocal chorus and thick textures of guitars and keyboards. The lyrics in Titans seem to vacillate between looking at grim realities and looking inside for how to cope with those realities. Flink sings: "You have to discover your gift and then you must find its limits. You have to work with what you've got and put to use your skill and talents." Flink and Westholm seem to have done just that with "Man Made Machine." The album is full of memorable melodies that are executed beautifully, making use of keyboard and vocals, moving between an almost stark nakedness to richly woven tapestries of sound. The thunder and rain continue into Sunshine Waters with choral voices given the effect of coming through a small speaker, before Flink begins singing over a low synth (an almost funky bwah-bwah) bass line. The vocal again establishes the melody, soon joined by acoustic guitar and piano, which lift the mood into a joyous refrain. The air is full of piano, guitar, synth and a childlike chorus. Rich textures of synthesizer lie beneath the lilting piano part enjoined by the continued strumming of the acoustic guitar and the non-verbal intoning of a chorus to the end of the track. Though Flink's voice has been compared to Fish, I am reminded of early Phil Collins or Helmut Kollen of Triumvirat, though the stylings are different. His voice is very pleasant and listenable, which is good, because the songs are all fairly vocal centric, despite the broadly orchestrated instrumental portions. The Weakening Sound moves back to a pensive tone, voice and piano dominating the arrangement, backed by strings. The drums, beating out a marching rhythm are faint, barely heard. Chorus is again effectively used in a haunting affect, with piano arpeggios in the song's climax. Tilting the Scales is another of the catchy tunes, which the band referenced in their promotional materials. It alternates between the moody, somewhat sparsely done verses and the densely rich refrains. The Man You Just Became begins with swirling electronic winds and phase-shifted organ accompanied by the chirping and twittering of birds. However, the sound, as throughout the album is dampened, still sounding very much indoors. The title track is propelled by the driving percussion of bass, drums and piano (which I often fail to remember is percussion instrument), giving the feel of unstoppable mechanisms of industry. Throughout the album, the textures are rich and full of contrasting instrumentation, though there is nothing flashy in the way of soloing. All instrumentation supports the melodies and in particular, the vocals. Piano is probably the instrument that stands out the most, sharing the spotlight with the vocals. This is smooth ensemble playing, but not designed to be improvisational. There is something in the music that reminds me of early Genesis, but it is something faint, almost intangible that I can't put my finger on. Some of the constructions remind me of Ripples from "A Trick of the Tail," in the way the voice is used with few instruments backing it, but then the chorus builds in intensity and fills in with other instruments. There is also the element of the bridge that is utilized, with the sweeping piano work. That being said, please do not misunderstand me. This is not Classic Symphonic Prog. It has much more of a Neo Prog construct, with a bit of Floydish Space sensibility. Burn to Something New and In the Centre of an Empty Space are the two most up-tempo songs on the album with strong driving drum work through much of the songs, delving into more of a metal sound in places. The Recipe is a quirky little song, just harmonium and voice (with a touch of synth strings as backing). It provides a breather before This is Home. Speaking of breathing, there is a mechanical breathing sound that closely resembles Darth Vader. This last track is the most joyous of the entire album and has a strong Art Rock feel and could easily be something Jeff Lynne might have done with ELO. The melody is catchy. There is a good dose of synthesizer and machinegun type guitar strumming. There are even falsetto group vocal harmonies common to ELO or Queen.
"Man Made Machine" is a strong Neo Prog album, full of rich textures and contrasts, with elements of Symphonic Prog. Part of what appeals to me in this album is the ample use of acoustic piano and guitar over the more electronic textures and vocal chorus (of which there is plenty). The sound overall is thick and rich, but sometimes the sound feels a bit restrained or muffled and I find myself wishing for Flink or Westholm to throw open the window and let in a bit of air. That being said, this is an excellent album musically and very listenable, well paced, picking up momentum as it moves through the second half, ending on a bright note, so to speak. Recommended.