Fans of Jo Quail‘s previous records might find Exsolve to be a bit of a surprise. The cellist and composer has come to the attention of metal fans in recent years, touring with the likes of Amenra, Boris, and Winterfylleth, as well as appearing at festivals such as ArcTanGent. This is despite (or perhaps because of) her sound, up until this point, taking an innovative approach to the cello, resulting in compositions that have as much in common with drone and post-metal as they do modern classical. So, it is perhaps little surprise that Exsolve sees Quail team up with guests including Dan Capp (Winterfylleth), and Nik Sampson (Devilment, Prolapse A.D.). The result is an album that occupies a unique position in Jo Quail’s discography, being one of her most accessible, but also one where her distinctive musical identity is sometimes overshadows by her collaborators.
Previous releases have very much showcased Jo Quail’s avant-garde approach to composition and the cello – full of loops, echoes, and contrasting melodies – and that’s still the case for large parts of Exsolve; indeed, the sections where Quail is playing solo, allowing her cello to stand out, are among the best parts of the album. They are dense in emotion, whether their sound be sparse and haunting, or more full-blooded and ominous. A vast variety of moods are summoned, and there is a sense of journey; that the music is no background accompaniment, but a living entity in its own right, full of sorrow and love and pain and joy, experiencing these feelings as much as it is communicating them.
It’s often when the collaborators with a metal or rock background come to the fore on Exsolve that Quail’s sense of identity risks being over-shadowed. On the first track, ‘Forge of Two Forms’, the song opens with Quail’s cello lines and rhythms, layered and building up gradually, suggesting some dreadful beast approaching. It is a captivating, truly ominous opening movement, showcasing many of Quail’s best qualities. But when the electric guitars are introduced just after the seventh minute, the contrast between them and the cello is incredibly stark, almost to the point of feeling crass. What starts off as a composition full of subtlety and nuance is instead over-shadowed by guitar lines that wouldn’t feel out of place in an 80’s action movie. It’s not inherently bad, but the contrast in sound and tone between the two instruments and sections of the song is too great for it to truly succeed; and it’s almost of a relief when the guitars fade away, leaving the cello to see the song’s closing movement out.
Second track, ‘Mandrel Cantus’, suffers from a similar issue. The opening minutes are full of creeping darkness, the sound of shadows that move and flicker, only ever hinting at the true form of what they hide. Yet when the guitars come in, they sound brash and obvious by comparison, shouting out what had previously only been whispered, displaying in huge neon signs messages that had been originally written in secret notes. Again, it would be wrong to describe it as bad, and it is definitely more successful than the opening track; but the contrast is too great to really work as well as intended.
In contrast, closer ‘Causleen’s Wheel’ is an absolute success. The track takes its time to build up, making excellent use of its long (over fifteen minute) duration to slowly add layers to both its sound and emotions, before finally reaching a climax that feels almost revelatory. Its chanted vocals reaching out to the beyond, ritualistic rhythms marching in the background, and the cello and guitar lines weaving in and out of one another – it is absolutely glorious, cathartic to the point of life-affirming, and an utter triumph. This is what Exsolve has been reaching for throughout its duration, and ‘Causleen’s Wheel’ feels like the realisation of something was previously only hinted at; a breakthrough that was always just out of reach, but has not been grasped firmly. Any misgivings about the rest of Exsolve are washed away in these closing moments, and are enough to elevate the album from an interesting meeting of musicians and styles, to being a vital part of Jo Quail’s already impressive discography.
Exsolve is due for release on 2 November. For pre-order details, follow Jo Qauil on Bandcamp.