Published on 6th June 2020
Chimpan A – The Empathy Machine
Chimpan A is a fascinating project led by multi-instrumentalist Rob Reed, of Magenta, and the superb vocalist Steve Balsamo, who worked with Reed on Kompendium in 2012. Balsamo is probably best known for his stellar performances on the West End stage as Jesus in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Fans of Reed’s work, either with Magenta or his Oldfield-esque instrumental Sanctuary projects, may be expecting a familiar foray into Reed’s usual progressive rock territory. They could be in for a real shock – a very pleasant shock, but they definitely need to leave any preconceptions (and prejudices?) at the door if they are completely unfamiliar with this project. Chimpan A describe themselves rather eccentrically as “kinda like Pink Floyd’s Peter Gabriel loving brother, wearing Björk’s poppier swan dress, while making Massive Attack a cuppa”, which, quirky as it may sound, is about as good as any other way to describe a project which is hard to classify or pigeonhole. Ironically, The Empathy Machine is probably more truly ‘progressive’ than any ‘Prog’ project with which Reed has been involved over the years.
The Empathy Machine is the second instalment of this curious and rather splendid hybrid project, following their eponymous debut in 2006. Chimpan A has become something of a cult album for some, but one I confess to having missed first time around. Hearing it no,w I am kicking myself that I did not discover it earlier, but there’s so much music and so little time! In the accompanying DVD interview, The Empathy Machine is described as a machine in the future which can record our emotions. In a world with ever increasing Virtual Reality, Connectivity and Artificial Intelligence, such a sci-fi concept seems not so far away from reality. There is certainly a futuristic feel to the music, infused with electronica, samples, synths and vocoders. However, this is not a clunky sci-fi concept album with a corny story and cliched music. This release is strangely attuned to the peculiar times in which we live. Released a few days before the U.K. went into Covid-19 ‘Lockdown’, the sense that we are all living isolated, disconnected lives with relationships only linked remotely through the connectivity of our screens is somehow echoed by the electronic, but palpably emotional feel of this album. It has certainly been my main ‘lockdown album’, reflecting and touching upon my feelings as we all float along in this weird half existence, not quite knowing what’s coming next or when or whether it will all end.
Rob Reed provides his usual value with an additional DVD and 5.1 audio mix, which enhances the sonic enjoyment. Curious promo videos and some 2019 mixes of three songs from their first album complete the package, including an inventive sample of the opening from Oldfield’s Tubular Bells on The Secret Wish… with Rob Reed you’re never far away from his boyhood musical idol.
This is not an album to be analysed – this is an album of ambient subtlety and emotionally imbued atmospheres which should just be felt with the heart. The World Through My Eyes immediately propels us into some sort of sci-fi landscape with tinkling keys, droning synths and vocoder. This is a lush opening which brings together electronica, acoustic guitars, and the gorgeous soulful vocals of Steve Balsamo. One master stroke, which Balsamo and Reed describe as their ‘secret weapon’, is the fascinating spoken word contribution delivered so warmly by poet Tony Dallas – in the middle section backed by choral sounds and a keyboard with more than a hint of Supertramp. Over a gently chiming end section, Dallas announces like some sort of mystical MC, drawing back a stage curtain:
“Come walk with me, if you will, to this adventure we’ll call the world through my eyes…”
Just in that opening song we have encountered such a variety of styles and instruments, but they have been brought together so fluidly and with such intuition that it just fits perfectly. Reed and Balsamo have shared that this album basically had ‘No Rules’ – they just put together what worked emotionally. They reference Peter Gabriel and Talk Talk, but I could mention so many other influences and nuances you may associate with a variety of artists – but at the end of the day it’s pure Chimpan A. There are odd little nuggets which may make you smile, such as the little homage apparently to the synth solo in Genesis’s Follow You, Follow Me hinted at in The Scream – it may just be a coincidence, but maybe not.
There is such diversity and richness in this album. For instance, It’s So Real melds a groove-laden melody and soulful vocals, particularly Balsamo’s golden voice, together with rolling pianos and more than a hint of gospel… and then towards the end a soaring guitar comes in that could grace any Magenta album. Speed of Love pulses in on a synth wave and trip hop percussion, underpinning a captivating sample speech about the risks of trusting in love and the risks of NOT trusting in love… and that’s before the operatic soprano voice of Shan Cothi floats above the rhythm – it sounds incongruous but it works… trust me!
There is a real sense of this feeling like an organic, spontaneous album – obviously in reality Reed and Balsamo have worked hard to meticulously thread it all together, but its composite parts feel intuitive and inspired. Balsamo has shared that most of the lyrics were made up in the moment in response to Reed’s musical ideas. Apparently, Reed would sometimes take the ‘ad libbed’ vocals for one take of a song and lay it over different music if it worked better. It is a peculiar way to compose but it works so well. A great example of their singular process of creation is on the inspired The Calling which starts with dreamlike orchestral sounding synths and drones with gossamer thin percussion underpinning Balsamo’s wistful vocals. Reed’s warm sounding electric piano grounds the piece and Balsamo’s voice drips with yearning; “It’s a Beautiful Day…” and then briefly rises above the musical horizon with an impassioned but controlled cry of “Can You Hear the Call…”. I would struggle to explain the song logically, but in my heart I can certainly feel the moment and just sense it’s meaning. Beautiful female vocals (I am not always sure which of the three female vocalists!) act as a lovely counterpart to Balsamo on this song and throughout the album. The Calling rises and falls majestically as the song progresses with some flowing electric guitar. Gentle swallow flights of woodwind sounds and some more quizzical jazzy sax follow, leading to a brief flight of electric guitar. It’s an outstanding piece, typifying the ‘no rules’ and intuitive approach of The Empathy Machine.
The album concludes with Jack, featuring the eerie cello intro of Rachel Mari Kimba, and a mysterious female French sample. There are distinct echoes of Massive Attack at their best with whispered, yearning vocals and gently percussive beats and synths, conjuring up a dreamlike feel as if you are just waking. We go full circle with the return of Tony Dallas’s beguiling poetic spoken voice. There’s a clever twist at the end… but I’ll leave that for the listeners to hear – it’s worth discovering on this delightful album.
My favourite piece is probably Stars which has an ethereal synth intro subtly accompanying Christina Booth’s delicate vocals before we are taken on a gloriously lush journey with layers of synth and beats, interspersed with sultry horn sounds and Balsamo’s emotive vocals. It seems like the song is gently sinking into slumber… but the absolutely heart-breaking coda features tremulous, diaphanous vocals from Christina Booth. I do not mind telling you this engendered genuine tears for me as it somehow evoked an intensely personal moment of loss in my life:
It is very rare that a piece of music can hit you so powerfully and emotionally, and those moments should be appreciated and cherished – this is no ordinary album. It really stands out as rather special.
The Empathy Machine is a gorgeous album redolent with subtle intuition and dreamlike melodies, suffused with hypnotic rhythms and a real sense of true ‘Soul’. This is music to balm the mind and soothe the heart – embrace The Empathy Machine.
01. The World Through My Eyes (7:01)
02. It’s So Real (8:03)
03. Stars (9:46)
04. Speed of Love (8:00)
05. The Scream (7:44)
06. The Calling (8:13)
07. Jack (9:55)
Time – 58:42
5.1 Surround Mixes
Tracks 1 – 7 same as CD Edition
Additional Audio Tracks:
08. The Secret Wish (2019) (3:36)
09. Sam’s Song (2019) (6:45)
10. I Came to Say Goodbye (2019) (3:57)
Steve Balsamo – Lead Vocals & Throat Singing
Robert Reed – Keyboards, Drum Programming, Guitars, Bass
Tony Dallas – Spoken Word
Rosalie Deighton – Vocal
Christina Booth – Vocal
Kirstie Roberts – Vocal
Shan Cothi – Soprano Vocal
Rachel Mari Kimba – Cello
Steve Roberts – Live Drums
Record Label: Tigermoth Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 19th March 2020
Chimpan A (2006)
The Empathy Machine (2020)