The stream of cello and beats on ‘Jhanoem The Witch’, the opening piece on Jo Quail’s second full-length ‘Caldera’, shows the London composer’s excellent use of counterpoint in melody, an ability to synchronise frissons well enough with the percussion to give the impression of a live orchestra. Instead of a rambunctious full-on sonic assault, the overall mood is infectious, and the little touches of cello pizzicato that edge out of the timbre in an interwoven pattern careen effectively with elaborate musicality.
“Caldera” translates into English as “cauldron”, the metaphor Quail uses to staple her artistic imperative to her flagship instrument: the cello. Accompanied by many other instruments in her career so far, such as percussion, poets, timpani, violin, spoken word (and in other languages than English, as on later track “Volcano”), Quail never flits too fleetingly between observation and interaction, always giving each element a strong sense of necessity and place between the shape of the cauldron, and the arc of apotheosis.
As one would imagine for a record that contains Jo’s sonic modus operandi, ‘Caldera’ has a substantial backstory, which I’ve chosen to feature some parts of in agreement with her here. “The album for me has a very strong link to that particular earthy sensation that I don’t suggest is limited to women’s perceptions only, but is certainly to do with my pregnancy at the time of writing ‘Caldera’, the birth of my baby Eila, and the life-death-life cycle, the rawness, earthiness, absolute connectedness to a very spiritual and also sensual place. Short of calling the album ‘womb’ or something (incidentally Einstürzende Neubauten’s “Womb” was a big life changing track for me quite a few years back) I felt that “Caldera”, as ‘cauldron’ was a very good reference for what mattered and what was happening for me back then”.
The second track, ‘Amberay’, with its eastern feel in harmony full of close seconds kept me haunted in suspense all the way through, tight playing of the violin-style cello pitch polluting its own shape with a feedback trail of notes that edges out into the dynamic foreground. “‘Amberay’ is a picture that you see close up at first, and as the piece develops it’s as though your vision widens; by the end of the track there is huge sonic space. It all begins in one octave and moves apart with each ‘verse’ so by the end I’m occupying super high octaves and the bottom register of the cello too, but sort of leaving the mid range empty. The theme remains the same, accompanying harmony alters etc, it’s something I use in other pieces too, to create immense space”. Intermingling with the cello is the beautiful and captivating vocals by Lucie Dehli.
Without a storyline, the music is quaintly atmospheric and austere. Not too meandering, like it’s hanging on for another pass or word to interject. A sullen, quietly creeping emotional leverage collapses on itself through pure indecision. Clawing chords jut into an empty void. According to Quail, two-part composition ‘The Hidden Forest’ is based on a South East coastline’s underwater forest near Pett Level. “It’s about 5 miles from Hastings”, she says, “and is somewhere I know very well. It’s quite a dense place in terms of energy, the sea is absolutely unfettered there, it paws or ploughs its way in to the cliffs and reclaims its stake on a yearly basis. Many houses are now derelict on the cliff top, and sometimes you can walk, at low tide, and see the edges of a living room high above you. It’s not that that inspired me, but more the ambivalence of the sea, and how it reminds me that we are simply human, tiny cogs (albeit relevant) in a much larger wheel, and we can do what we will and get ourselves in to whatever state we will but at the end of the day the natural elements are the power, they are what feed us and ultimately what we meet at our end.”
“It’s where we shot ‘Adder Stone’, so hopefully that will give you some idea. I’ve always loved and been drawn to the sea, and the sea at Pett Level is my kind of sea, don’t get in it but respect and admire it. Under this tide is a ‘sunken forest’ which is basically a load of upright planks of wood visible at low tide, but in fact is a petrified forest from yonks back. Hence ‘The Hidden Forest’. I tried to capture the energy of the waves in part one, and the haunting beauty of this place, and strangeness too, in part two”.
Good stuff. This is the best album I’ve heard from Quail by far, the most memorable, the most structurally accomplished, the most emotive without being crass. Echoes of War Of The Worlds OST, Mike Oldfield, Egyptian music, Celtic music, Arvo Pärt all whirled together into a cohesive and alluring whole. The beats don’t sound tepid or tacked-on, they actually lift the sections where they feature and buoy them. The instrument playing doesn’t detract from fusion, or rather the collusion between technique and effect. A personal highlight is the dramatic abode walked through on “Laurus” and “Volcano”, shining light on lesser-worn areas of post-classical and performance art worlds. “Adder Stone” manages to stretch elements of traditional Irish music (the foot-shuffling beat) with forthright cello descent and ascension. It’s the longest piece in the set, and like a snake, the scales weave over a moving, predatory encapsulation.
I’d quietly call the LP a gentle masterpiece to be honest. But what say you?