I love the cello. I don’t think there are any other instruments which offer the tonal range and gorgeous timbre a cello can. I also think it’s criminally underused in heavy music. Apocalyptica demonstrate it can sound metal as hell, yet otherwise it’s mostly limited to a few cameo appearances. This brings me to Jo Quail, experimental cellist, loop pedal wizard, and versatile session musician. Her own back catalog is largely a post-rock/modern classical blend, and after a year in which she’s supported acts like Myrkur, Amenra, Boris, and Winterfylleth, their influence clearly shows on her new record. With her sound evolving towards post-metal and atmospheric black metal, her new album is an interesting development.
Exsolve is three tracks, each over ten minutes long, each with a different feel. All open with Quail’s signature cello/loop pedal acrobatics, layering texture, rhythm, and repeated melody phrases together, assembling the song under you in a way that reminds me of an atmoblack Mike Oldfield. From the beginning, each track feels different, though, sounding anywhere between post-rock and a classical string quartet playing a horror movie soundtrack. After the introduction, they each feature a different guest musician. Two are guitarists, and this works particularly well on standout track “Mandrel Cantus,” which contrasts distorted guitar chords to pizzicato cello and culminates in an extended, technical guitar solo, played over an intricately layered set of cello parts. Final track “Causleen’s Wheel” is weirder by far, weaving howling, distorted wordless vocals in among the cello at the denouement of a long, discordant build-up.
It’s not a perfect record by any means. Atmoblack isn’t really my thing, and some of the longer atmospheric passages start to drag a little. In particular, the pacing on the first track is a bit weird, with the last six minutes devoted to a solo wandering, often unsettling cello line, which is interesting but never really resolves. It’s a shame because the rest of the track is excellent. Plus, half the joy of watching Quail perform live is the sheer fascination in seeing how she draws such a variety of sounds from her cello and weaves them together with the loop pedal, and a recording is never going to quite replicate that. (There are some great live YouTube videos though.)
This is a record that rewards patience and repeated listens, and it’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But it expertly wields an unusual sonic palette and compositional talent to produce a post-metal record that sounds unlike any other. It’s helped by a great mix and DR12 master from the incongruous combo of Chris Fielding of Conan and soundtrack composer James Griffiths, producing a spacious, cinematic sound that lets the instruments ebb and flow and ensures the loud bits really are loud. If you like cellos, any of the genres I’ve mentioned, or just something a bit different, you should give this a shot.
Tracks to Check Out: “Mandrel Cantus”