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John Metcalfe



by Ian Mann

September 28, 2018


It’s obviously a labour of love, and the way in which Metcalfe weaves acoustic and electric sounds together, playing most of the instruments himself, is undeniably impressive.

John Metcalfe


(Neue Meister – 0301130NM)

New Zealand born John Metcalfe is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer and arranger, who has worked in the latter capacity with such globally famous rock artists as U2, Coldplay, Peter Gabriel, Morissey, Simple Minds, the Pretenders and Blur. He has also arranged music for TV, film and theatre.

He grew up listening to the likes of Kraftwerk and Joy Division and was briefly a drummer in a high school band. In the 80s he moved to Manchester, first studying at Royal Northern College of Music before joining the ranks of The Durutti Column, the cult band led by vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Vini Reilly, and staying for three years.

Metcalfe’s involvement with Durutti Column drew him to the attention of Tony Wilson of Factory Records with whom he helped to establish the Factory Classical label, dedicated to presenting contemporary classical music by emerging British composers, among them a then young Steve Martland.

Metcalfe has always had a foot in both the rock and classical camps, the latter a legacy of his opera singing father. For thirty years Metcalfe has been the violist of the Duke Quartet, a group centred around the performance of contemporary classical music but one which has also appeared frequently on a variety of pop and rock sessions.

As a solo artist Metcalfe has explored the hinterland where classical and electronic musics meet, blurring the boundaries on albums such as “The Inner Line” (2004), “Scorching Bay” (2004), “A Darker Sunset” (2008) and “The Appearance of Colour” (2015).

“Absence”, his fifth full length album is different again, with the focus this time on more conventional song structures. It’s also a very personal work, partly inspired by the death of his father many years ago when Metcalfe was still at school. The more recent suicide of a close friend also feeds into “Absence”, an album of songs dealing less with death itself but the absence of loved ones and the ways in which they are remembered. The paintings of the early 20th century Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi are also an influence on the project.

Of the album Metcalfe says;
“One aspect of ‘Absence’ is an exploration of those moments around death, the minutes of brain activity once the heart stops, the electricity running out. Do we still have any kind of language? If so what thoughts do we have and what would we wish to say to those close to us. In a larger context the album can be interpreted as a set of stages through which two people might travel when one of them is dying. Although mainly set in the present the music also addresses the past, and life beyond loss.”

“Absence”, then is a kind of ‘concept album’ or song cycle. It’s not a jazz album as such although the personnel does include performers best known for their work as jazz musicians. The core trio features Ali Friend, of the group Red Snapper,  on double bass plus Daisy Palmer at the drums, who has played with Get The Blessing, Paloma Faith and Bristol based saxophonist Kevin Figes. Tom Cawley, of Acoustic Ladyland and Curios fame, plays piano on one track. More recently Cawley has worked as pianist and musical director for Peter Gabriel.

The person who gives voice to Metcalfe’s words is singer Rosie Doonan, another Gabriel protégée. Metcalfe first worked with Doonan on the 2016 four track EP “Wrapped” and “Absence” is the continuation of a fruitful working relationship, with Doonan contributing to the writing process on two of the ten pieces.

Other than the contributions of Doonan, Friend, Palmer and Cawley Metcalfe plays everything himself and also adds his own vocals to the proceedings.

Metcalfe’s “So Clear” commences the cycle and establishes the mood for the album. The leader’s ghostly, melancholic viola and subtle electronic embellishments underscore Doonan’s pure toned vocal incantations. On what is obviously such a personal work it’s unfortunate that the lyrics aren’t reproduced in full as part of the album packaging. Nonetheless the mood here seems to be one of contented resignation at the time of death, of a celebration of a life well lived and with happy memories for both parties to draw succour from. “We have / so much / my love”, sings Doonan at one point.

The absence of the printed lyrics may be explained by Metcalfe’s comment;
“Lyrics are so prescriptive, and I’m not a poet. I’ve tried to leave things open for the listener, to own it more themselves”.

Also by Metcalfe “Above the Waves of Crystal Water” ups the tempo as Friend and Palmer are added to the equation. Sequenced electronic rhythms combine with Palmer’s bustling drum grooves to provide an unstoppable, uplifting momentum as Metcalfe dips into the pop world that has sustained him for so long. There are hints of minimalism too, while Doonan’s sweetly soaring vocals are possessed of a folk inflected purity.

Co-written by Metcalfe and Doonan “Solitude” is one of the simplest and most direct songs on the album. Featuring the leader’s viola and piano in the arrangement Doonan’s vocals express the sorrow of bereavement and the loneliness it causes. “Those eyes, those smiles / Suddenly I / Solitude”. Yet it’s not quite all doom and gloom, as the song draws to a close Metcalfe offers a glimmer of future hope, “I dream / Open the door”.

Another co-write, “Feel The Land”, features Metcalfe’s own vocals in conjunction with Doonan’s.
The arrangement features Metcalfe playing a range of acoustic and electronic instruments as the track builds from simple beginnings to a wide-screen magnificence featuring multi-tracked vocals and propulsive bass and drum grooves.

Metcalfe’s “Boats and Crosses” describes the post-bereavement return to an empty house and features Cawley’s piano in an arrangement that also incorporates Metcalfe’s mournful viola and a particularly emotive vocal from Doonan. The spirit of the deceased seems to haunt the survivor. The second half of the piece sees a change of momentum and dynamics as drums and bass kick in, helping to create a mighty wall of sound behind the desolate wail of Doonan’s vocals. The ‘outro’ of the piece is based on a remix of the tune “Kite” by Friend’s ‘parent’ group, Red Snapper.

“The Sound Was Our Ocean” features an arrangement for piano, viola, double bass and simple percussion plus the voices of Doonan and Metcalfe. The circling, minimalist influenced melodic motifs complement the watery images of the words, “He fell into nothing, the sound was our ocean”.

The towering “Hymn” features layered choral vocals, grandiose church organ and subtle electronica, prior to a brief, sombre piano led coda.

“Twelve Days Later” (subtitled “Flood, Tide”)  features Metcalfe’s piano, viola and vocals.  Haunting, haiku like lyrical phrases are underpinned by a gently percolating recurring piano motif while the multi-tracked violas add an air of melancholy grandeur. This is the piece that kick started the “Absence” project and was initially written as a reaction to Metcalfe’s friend’s suicide. Among the lyrics are the lines; “He lay free, gone / This time let go / Keep him inside”. Metcalfe doesn’t have Doonan’s technical prowess as a singer but his sense of loss is palpable.

“When They Weep” utilises a melody written by Ben Murray in a dense full band arrangement that features Doonan’s layered vocals and Metcalfe’s keyboards and electronica, plus double bass and drums. Metcalfe’s lyrics address the subject of the acceptance of death.

Finally “See Me Through” with its gently bubbling synths, sweeping violas and dreamily layered vocals closes the album on a note of hope and reconciliation.

“Absence” isn’t a jazz album per se and as such may not appeal to all the readers of this website. It’s also a very personal record that touches, albeit sometimes obliquely, on some pretty distressing subject matter. It’s probably the most ‘personal’ album I’ve reviewed since Charlie Beresford’s “Dark Transport” back in 2009, although Metcalfe’s recording is closer to the musical mainstream. For comparisons go here;

Nevertheless “Absence”, like “Dark Transport” is undoubtedly a success on its own terms, both artistically and as a cathartic exercise. It’s obviously a labour of love, and the way in which Metcalfe weaves acoustic and electric sounds together, playing most of the instruments himself, is undeniably impressive. So too are Doonan’s vocals, which are assured, flexible and confident and possessed of great purity of tone. She gets inside Metcalfe’s songs and imparts them with a considerable emotional impact. Friend and Palmer also make telling contributions, with the latter particularly impressive.

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