John Metcalfe Releases A Neo Classical Masterpiece
What is it to be human? What unites us across time and continents and blood? Many have sought answers to such fundamental questions by examining sorrow and loss, death being a constant faced by us all. Some of the world’s greatest artists have used grief as a muse, searching for meaning in how we deal with what we lose and our capacity to overcome tragedy. And to the list of those who have grappled with such conceptions we must now add John Metcalfe, whose stunning 'Absence' delivers a thoughtful and ultimately uplifting rumination on what death leaves behind, and how we come to terms with it.
Metcalfe has always been surrounded by music. As a child, he would listen to his father sing opera, before a love of Kraftwerk and Joy Division led to a stint as a drummer in a high school band. But it was a move to Manchester that really accelerated his development as an artist, and led to him finding his true calling. Joining cult band The Durutti Column, then signed to legendary label Factory Records, brought him into the orbit of Tony Wilson and the Haçienda, formative events that would help foster his renegade spirit.
Unimpressed with the strictures demanded by the classical recording industry, Metcalfe persuaded Wilson to launch the ground-breaking Factory Classical Label, aimed at unearthing exciting – and unconventional – new British talent. It was here that Metcalfe found a home, and the group that would come to define his musical career; the Duke Quartet. For nearly 30 years, they’ve existed at the vanguard of contemporary British music, innovating and delighting in equal measure. Working with world-renowned artists across the entire cultural spectrum, from pop, dance, film, TV, and theatre, Metcalfe honed his arranging and producing skills; he’s now one of the UK’s most sought after arrangers, regularly working with some of biggest names in music (Morrissey, U2, Coldplay, Blur, George Michael and Tom Jones).
As a solo artist, Metcalfe explores electro-classical soundscapes and the boundaries between genres. His finely tuned compositions are neat yet grand in scale, both in terms of sound and the conceptual ideas underpinning them. 'Absence', the fifth record to bear his own name, is something of a departure for Metcalfe, framing bold images and themes with some of the most conventional song structures he’s ever employed. But it’s also his most affecting, deconstructing a subject he’s been interested in since his childhood in New Zealand.
Written around the time of his last record, 2015’s 'The Appearance Of Colour', it found its way into his set-lists and inspired a new suite of songs exploring not death itself, but the absence left by loved ones and how we remember them. The record is chronological, exploring the relationship between two lovers, one of whom is dying.
Metcalfe’s triumph is to steer 'Absence' away from the mawkish and trite, writing instead from a warm, loving perspective. “We have / so much / my love”, sings Rosie Doonan on elegiac opener ‘She Feels’, a gentle hymn about reminiscence and a life shared. It sets the tone beautifully, Metcalfe’s viola a soft hum underneath Doonan’s ghostly voice. And it’s the latter that’s often the stand out element, conveying a regal grace, poise, and hope.
The trio – Doonan, Ali Friend on bass, and Daisy Palmer on drums – have grounded his compositions and give a rich texture; witness Palmer propelling ‘Feel The Land’ to a crescendo, or adding to the jittery bustle of ‘Above The Waves Of Crystal Waters’. There’s also a precision to these songs, and their relative simplicity in comparison to his more experimental music gives each instrument space to breathe. Even his own voice is elevated, floating alongside Doonan’s and occasionally forging ahead on its own.
And so one is left to catch the details and piece together the puzzle; returning to an empty house with trepidation in ‘Boats And Crosses’, finding acceptance in death in ‘When They Weep’, and memories of love giving the strength to carry on with life in ‘See Me Through’. Through it all, Metcalfe focuses on tenderness and love’s healing power, how “The sky sings of our union” (‘Above The Waves Of Crystal Waters’). Nature looms large too; rain, oceans, and sunlight hinting at the natural cycles that govern our lives, and how powerless we are to resist them.
All of these elements come together to devastating effect in ‘Solitude’, one of the most emotional, heartfelt tracks Metcalfe has ever written and the heart of 'Absence'. “Those eyes, those smiles / Suddenly I / Solitude”, Doonan gently laments as plaintive piano and haunting viola perfectly capture the crushing feeling of being alone. But even as the protagonist bleeds and weeps, hope is offered as a salve; “I dream / Open the door”. Metcalfe’s gift is to gently remind us that while nothing ever lasts forever, we owe it to our dearly departed to forge ahead with the life we have left, and to live it in their honour.