Jo Quail – Exsolve

One of the strange facts about Metal is how limited the formula can be, at times. The guitar, drums, bass and warbler model stands firm for a surprising range of genres, from Black Metal to Death, to Thrash, to the NWOBHM… So, give cellist Jo Quail a round of applause for trying something new with her new album, Exsolve (self-released).

As you can probably guess, Exsolve has a few heavy guitars here and there, because, y’know, tradition (‘The Brussel Sprouts At Xmas’ principle, as it were). Nonetheless, much of the album’s sound is based on sinister ambient music and strings. There are also only three tracks, but these amount to over forty-four minutes. (Brain) dead easy listening this is not. But expect strings.

Oh, such strings! ‘Forge of Two Forms’ opens proceedings with a brooding and yet forlorn menace, slowly building up to a powerful, memorable crescendo. Here, themes are slowly but methodically built up, fully realised and then repeated to make the point clear. It would work rather well as a film soundtrack, but most importantly, it works as engaging and distinctive Prog Metal. The masterstroke, however, is when the song suddenly slows down into a sparse, funereal chorus of strings, slowly ebbing away for almost half of the track’s length.

Track two ‘Mandrel Cantus’ is the shortest(!) track, at eleven minutes and twenty-three seconds. It is also the most accessible track on the album, with a simpler structure overall and more guitars than usual. When it hits its stride, it does so with an almighty yet utterly wistful hook – imagine Heavy Metal not as a thunderstorm, but waves crashing on the cliffs on a desolately beautiful winter’s day. Its final slowdown into echoing strings fading away and yet seeming to haunt each other is a wonderful finishing touch.

Finally, ‘Causleen’s Wheel’ has the relatively easy task of finishing the album, given that the other two tracks have done a good job so far. Sadly, this is where the formula falters, as the music descends into a vague mashup of unfocussed riffing and mildly anodyne ‘moods’ and crescendos. All in all, the album is still more engaging than 80% of the metal releases this year, and certainly ten times more fresh and original. And two thirds of it is well worth your time. It’s just that the remaining third couldn’t quite seal the deal.