Review: Jo Quail ‘The Cartographer’

Once upon a time, there was a time. It was a time before Jo Quail.

Back then, in early 2020, I discovered Portals Festival. On the billing, amongst bands such as Ohhms, and Midas Fall, my reason for attending was Jo Quail. It was a name I initially didn’t know. So, I did a little research. Jo is an artist who plays electric cello and uses all manner of pedals and other technology, to create sonic soundscapes unlike anything I’ve heard before. To say I was totally unprepared would have only skimmed the surface if I’m honest. Right from the opening moments of the performance, I was transfixed.  

Jo Quail 'The Cartographer'

Since then, I have been lucky enough to witness Jo perform again when she recently performed in London, with another of my favourites, the absolutely incredible A. A. Williams. Again, the whole experience left me changed. To say that what Jo does is equivalent to a spiritual event sounds incredibly pretentious, but I don’t think I can express it in any other way.

So, following that show, Jo announced that she was releasing this new album, The Cartographer.  After ordering it, I found out that actually The Cartographer had been a commissioned piece of work by the good people at Roadburn Festival. Apparently, it had been originally commissioned back in 2020, before it all came to an unprecedented halt. So, for two years, The Cartographer has been sitting, evolving, and waiting on the opportunity for a release. But not until it had premiered at Roadburn. From the reports I heard back from someone who had attended the event, the head honcho of this very beast, The Sleeping Shaman, it was, and I quote, ‘simply awesome’. I always knew it would be, but to have the top dog say it was just incredible to hear.

So, upon being given the opportunity to review the album, as a runner-up to seeing the show firsthand, I literally snapped it up.

Since then, I have, quite possibly, listened to it, thirty, maybe forty times. When I paint, it’s on. When I’m reading, it’s on. When I’m washing up even, it’s on. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to an album I will be reviewing as much as I’ve listened to this one, in preparation for what’s to come, review wise.

The Cartographer, it’s split into five ‘movements’, each of which is the equivalent of a track. Now, whereas Jo usually works as a soloist, and utilises pedals and looping technology to bring the works to life, this time there is actually a full ensemble of musicians who are on for the ride. This includes a trombonist outfit known as The Crossbones, as well as dual vocalists, drummer, and even a pianist in the mix too.

Over the course of the five ‘movements’, Jo conjures up a sonic masterpiece, unlike anything I imagine that you’ve heard before. Its exquisite, for lack of a more perfect word.

It’s mysterious, yet dark. It feels romantic, yet sinister…

Starting with a gong clash, the experience opens out into an otherworldly soundscape. As the bow writhes across the strings, a sombre mood is set, and it feels as if being ushered along on a gentle breeze into the darkness. With each wondrous stroke, Jo carries the listener on a journey. Much like putting brush strokes down on a canvas, Jo paints with sound, and it truly does warm the soul. Like with every album Jo has made, to put it on is to be taken away on an adventure. This time though, it feels like being in a movie. It’s mysterious, yet dark. It feels romantic, yet sinister.

Throughout the whole album, this feeling is captivating. Movement 2 really shows Jo’s incredible talent, and scope. Utilising to the maximum, the tech at hand, such as with the loops, we’re taken from an ambient infancy to intense brooding passages. Whimsical brass sections tickle the air, while dancing piano keys add to the luscious musical landscape.

Movement 3 is where all of the forces align, to create something truly majestic. Like a romantic swan song, the dying of love, the cello seems to cry in pain. The omnipresent accompaniment is equally as heavy as it is morose. Within the piece, along with the eerie piano, is the only overtly obvious vocal performance. Starting as a chanted low vocal, it bursts forth with the statement ‘Pray for me’, and the character in the dark is exposed.

As Movement 5 opens to finish the album, the full force of the ensemble opens up, and it’s a joy to witness. As it builds and builds, my anticipation grows too, until it hits its almighty crescendo. As it dies away, I can feel my heart pounding, and I’m left completely numb and speechless.

I could go on. I could easily talk at length about this whole opus, and how incredible it really is, but it would leave nothing for you to experience for yourselves. And that’s the point, it needs to be experienced. You will probably take something different from what I experienced, and that’s exactly why my review doesn’t go into too much depth. There are no words to fully put into context just how immense this experience is, beyond advising you to go out and find it for yourself. It isn’t for in the car, or at a party, but if you do want to feel moved, actually touched artistically, then you need to get a copy of this album and give yourself to it.

And then book tickets to see Jo perform, trust me, it’s absolutely spellbinding…

Label: By Norse
Band Links: Official | Facebook | Bandcamp | Twitter | Instagram

Scribed by: Lee Beamish