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Jo Quail - The Cartographer

Jo Quail The Cartographer coverMention the name Jo Quail to me and I still think of her as the cellist who was part of SonVer and for her contributions to the work of Naevus (Relatively Close To The Sea) and Rose McDowall (Our Twisted Love) and with industrial doom act Khost (Corrosive Shroud, Governance) so it's fair to say I'm unaware of her rise to the prominent position she holds within the metal scene. On the evidence of The Cartographer it's clear I've been missing out on a lot. Nowadays, Jo Quail is an "internationally acclaimed composer and virtuoso cellist" who "combines an eloquent mastery of her instrument with innovative looping techniques, to realise her complex, evocative music for audiences worldwide."

Commissioned in 2019 and eventually premiered in Tilburg, Holland as part of the 2022 Roadburn Festival, The Cartographer was scored by Jo Quail for 8 trombones, piano, 2 percussionists, violin, 2 vocalists and electric cello, the instrument associated with the composer Jo Quail. The delay caused by the Covid pandemic gave space for Jo Quail to assemble the musicians to record the score, which has just been released digitally and on vinyl and CD via the label By Norse.

The concept of The Cartographer was to explore heaviness in music, as she elaborated: "as an artist and composer straddling both classical and contemporary genres the concept of heaviness in music is experienced via the intention of the composer, and then the delivery of the performance. Arguably heaviness is an emotional concept, reaching far beyond the confines of volume, speed and instrumentation."

And unarguably, The Cartographer is an album and composition that finds a nexus between the classical world and the metal community, a scene in which Jo Quail is heavily involved. Myrkur, At The Gates, My Dying Bride offer just a quick overview of some of the acts she has worked with. However listening to The Cartographer it's obvious that it goes well beyond those comparisons in a composition that is cinematic, containing elements of experimental, ambient and modern composition. This is definitely something many listeners will enjoy and one I've spent a lot of time with recently.

It opens with a gong clash and over reverberations the narrator, Alice Krige, recites the poem penned by Jo Quail which birthed the whole project. In sombre cello strokes it seeks out its territory. Desolate and pensive, 'Movement 1' seems to map out a landscape filled with beauty reflected in lithe, graceful cello strokes, which bow and flex, as a violin weaves and winds through slow swelling orchestral flourishes hinting at a lurking hidden danger. 'Movement 2' entwines brass and strings to create a brooding atmosphere, its spacious arrangements cut with swathes of dramatic orchestratal bombast offering a martial air accentuated by the pounding of timpani drums. A sense of battle hangs heavy but that's before it moves into a contemplative section involving rippling piano notes, haunting female harmonies and a gentle violin score crafting a wistful section that ends on repeated hammering keys and a fanfare of spirited brass.

'Movement 3' is the impressive centrepiece and it is one that is thrillingly evocative. Against wordless harmonies so beautifully sung by Lucie Delhi (formerly of Vicious Circle, they were on Some Bizzare) and slow orchestral movements which continually build and fall away to bursts of rolling timpani drums and the sinuous bows of an electric violin. Amidst orchestral and piano stabs, a male voice enters and in whispered tones interprets Jo Quail's poem. Piano keys pound accompanied by majestic blasts from the trombone ensemble. The male vocal becomes deeper, more discernible and almost chant-like, flanked by trombone fanfares and martial drum rhythms. Edging onwards it rises to a throat-shredding roar. Those vocals by Grave Lines' Jake Harding may have more in common with metal and norse folk but the music is just as heavy, carried by the thunderous pummel of timpani drums and martial edged orchestrations and the tinkering of piano notes. Violins soar amidst spirited brass dynamics as harmonies shadow the impressive vocal rasps. This is intense and powerfully moving.

A dynamic tension runs through 'Movement 4' underpinned by an elongated ambient orchestral drone and a quickened cyclical percussive rhythm pushed onward by frenetic passages of brass parps. It's all quite dramatic and reminiscent of a cinematic chase sequence, interweaving the string and brass sections to great effect, but it is the final track, 'Movement 5', which ties things together with the most "metal" and "norse folk" sounding track on The Cartographer. From its opening Alice Krige narration, it features all the elements: the rattling atmospheric background rhythm, the wailing harmonies and deep seated heavy rasps, the penetrating, taut of trombones resembling hunting horns and elongated droning and soaring electric violin score, replicating guitar riffs and expressive solos, all coalescing at its crescendo as it aims for the skies and into beyond.

The Cartographer is an unmitigated success. I'm a sucker for strings and on The Cartographer Jo Quail has created something impressive, where passages filled with tension and crescendos are mixed with others that are more spacious and brooding allowing all the performers to work within the subtlety of the composition. It is a composition that errs towards classical music but knowing the intent I can assign meaning around some of the sounds. I've no idea how this has been received by the metal community nor classical listeners but the whole thing has an energy drawing upon the elements posited within the poem. Whether you listen to metal or norse music doesn't really matter. Jo Quail has composed something special here, and I'd urge all our readers to give this one a listen. The Cartographer is released digitally and as a CD and limited vinyl from Jo Quail at bandcamp and By Norse