Looking Back on a Unique, Individualistic New York Art-Rock Project
Pan-Asian-influenced art-rock band Carbonworks were one of the most interestingly eclectic groups to emerge in New York in the late teens. They were essentially a studio project. They put out just one album, early in 2017 and played a single gig to celebrate it – in Chinatown, if memory serves right. But that album is still streaming at Soundcloud. Fans of ornate 70s psychedelic bands like Genesis, and adventurous string ensembles like the Kronos Quartet, are especially encouraged to check it out.
The album opens with Song for an Angel, a slow, brooding Ladino waltz with plaintive violin from Allegra Havens and Phi Khanh’s distinctive vocals over bassist Shea Roebuck and drummer Mike Stetina’s rock rhythm. Khanh switches to Vietnamese over Chau Nguyen’s fluttery dan tranh zither in the introduction to By the Window, which rises to a mashup of the Mission Impossible theme and quasi trip-hop.
They go back to moody waltz territory, awash in lush strings, for the cynical God Save the King “Everything you wanted somehow slipped away,” Khanh laments. They pick up the pace in a tricky 14/8 beat for the punk-tinged Samurai, which could be a Changing Modes song, right down to Khanh’s somber vocals.
Monaco, a pulsing one-chord instrumental jam, comes across as the Alan Parsons Project with more organic production – and a koto mingling with bandleader Neal Barnard’s piano against stark strings. With its soaring vocal harmonies and swirling strings, Louder Than Words wouldn’t be out of place in the My Brightest Diamond catalog.
The album’s centerpiece is the four-part End of the World Suite. A stark string trio (also including violist Anastasia Migliozzi and cellist Jeff Phelps) over a galloping beat signals Part 1: The Beginning of the End, then Chris Thomas King’s bluesy guitars enter and pull the music toward Pink Floyd bluster. With its trickily rhythmic, loopily acidic guitar-and-violin harmonies, Part 2: Love and Illusion brings to mind the Turtle Island Quartet’s 80s experimentations.
The strings intertwine bustlingly with Russell Kirk’s sax over steady, shapeshifting rhythms in Part 3: The End. Only the suite’s coda, Winged Victory, with its brief dan tranh and Renaissance-tinged vocal interludes, has any discernible apocalyptic quality. The album concludes with West Pier, a melancholy, distantly baroque-tinged piece for string quartet and voice.