AMN Reviews: Jo Quail – The Cartographer (2022; By Norse Music)

Cellist Jo Quail is equally comfortable in classical ensembles, metal bands, and solo performances. She has also put out a string of very compelling studio albums over the last dozen years. The Cartographer is a large-scale piece of five movements for cello, violin, piano, vocalists, percussion, and eight trombones. There are also spoken word components that are mostly unobtrusive – until they are not.

The album is largely classical music that is played in a heavy fashion, with its unusual instrumentation adding a subtlely alien feel. Techniques from minimalism (pounding piano chords) and chant are coupled with martial percussion to great effect. This is often strangely reminiscent of Magma, another source of ponderous rock/classical amalgams.

The centerpiece of the album is Movement 3, a powerful and deliberately-paced 15-minute cinematic exploration. It begins softly with layers of brass and voices, while staccato rhythms build and ebb. Quail’s contributions are subdued – mostly taking the form of slow melodies. This picks up in volume and pace around the 7-minute mark with thick and majestic chords from the strings and brass. At first blush, these sections resemble massive electric guitar riffs (to be fair the cello and violin are amplified so some distortion effects may have been applied). The piano and percussion continue their off-kilter march, driving the piece forward as the vocals switch from quiet to shouted. All of this is restrained – controlled despite its raw energy and power.

This one track is just a taste of The Cartographer. There is much more to hear, including passages that would be in place on a recording of Steve Reich or Sunn O))). But Quail’s offering manages to also have similarities to other classical / metal hybrids of recent years – Triptykon and Nightwish, for instance. In short, this is a beautiful album for someone (like me) who grew up on metal and likes to hear it being taken to new and weird places.

The Cartographer comes out on May 6th.