ALBUM REVIEW: Jo Quail – The Cartographer


London’s Jo Quail is something of an anomaly within the “heavy music” scene. She is an electric cellist and composer whose work owes as much to classical music as to experimental rock and metal. Quail has been performing for many years and releasing music since 2010, but in the last few years has risen in stature within the metal scene to the point where she has recently collaborated with Emma Ruth Rundle, and been commissioned by Roadburn festival.

Quail has often performed solo, working with live loops and effects, and has also collaborated with various lineups of other musicians. Her latest release, The Cartographer (By Norse), features largely orchestral instrumentation including percussion, strings, brass and piano, alongside two vocalists and her usual effect- and loop-laden electric cello setup. The work, which consists of five movements, was originally commissioned by Roadburn Festival for their ill-fated 2020 edition, and now instead takes the form of an album (which was also performed at the recent 2022 Roadburn). Quail lists such diverse influences as Debussy, Arvo Pärt, Tool and Cardiacs, and talks about being inspired by visual artists including Barbara Hepworth and Georgia O’Keefe. Quail says she has her own narrative in mind, but that she loves that “those listening will create their own story from what they hear”.

The music itself for the most part feels much closer to contemporary classical music than anything “heavy” or “rock” (although Quail suggests that “heaviness is an emotional concept, reaching far beyond the confines of volume, speed and instrumentation”). The record burns slowly and takes its time to unfold gradually over the duration of it forty-eight minutes.

Tam-tams and timpani punctuate the brooding, dark, unsettling, filmic strings and brass. Repeated themes and motifs steadily build and the atmosphere becomes more and more intense. We are steadily drawn out of the hushed creepy ambience of the first part of the album until, by the middle of ‘Movement 3’, we reach a dramatic and powerful climax. Prog-metal quasi-operatic vocals from Jake Harding, crashing rhythmic percussion, blasts of brass and pulsating bass combine to create a formidable and frightening onslaught. At this point it almost feels like metal.

In the latter half of the record there are some wonderful minimalist classical moments, where short phrases repeat and worm their way into your brain as tensely restrained hypnotic percussion swirls around and around. Often there is a drone-like bass undercurrent which is offset by beautiful brass chord swells. Evocative spoken narration (written by Quail and read by Alice Krige) adorns the first and last movements, and layers of Lucie Dehli’s voice often provide an epic choir-like effect. The music manages on several occasions to almost surreptitiously shift from near-silence to a huge and imposing majestic apex.

‘Movement 5’ reaches a final such peak that feels cathartic and uplifting; something of an antidote to the darkness that preceded. Subtle delay effects and a bit of distortion sit with what is otherwise a piece of anthemic, cinematic and epic classical music. It feels like the end sequence of an imaginary film.

The Cartographer requires you to drift away with it and, when you do, it’s utterly captivating. Many of the dark and eerie atmospheres are similar to what you might find on a metal album, even though musically this is something different. In fact, although reminiscent of certain film soundtracks and perhaps of experimental bands like Ulver, this record doesn’t quite sound like anything else. It’s not a rock album, and it may take some listeners less well-versed in modern classical music a while for its power to sink in; sometimes the subtle ambient sections that make up a lot of this record might not provide those looking for a riff or hook with enough to get their teeth into.

It won’t be for everyone, but The Cartographer is undoubtedly a triumph that will reward those who give it time and multiple listens. It borrows from the rock lexicon to present a masterful take on contemporary classical music that is breathtaking, dark, powerfully emotive and unique. Jo Quail has cemented her position as a composer of the very highest calibre and those with minds opening to the fusion of seemingly disparate genres will recognise this.

Buy the album here:

8 / 10