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Classical Editor in Chief: Rob Barnett
The Inner Line
John Metcalfe, violin, viola and guitar
Louisa Fuller, violin
Rick Koster, violin
Ivan McCready, cello
All members of the Duke Quartet
with Ralph Salmins, drums/percussion
BLACK BOX BBM1053 [61.28]
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Categorisation is the perennial problem with music. An innovative composer can suffer by the strict marketing segregation of CD’s by record companies and distributors etc. John Metcalfe has bitten the bullet and his artistic development has been placed here before any categorisation. Having said that, I would not want to be the person who decides in what category to place this release in a record shop and this judgement is clearly important as potential listeners need to know what they are purchasing. Is this classical music? Is this jazz? Is this pop or even funk? The release I feel cannot be placed comfortably in any convenient categorising box. It is a mixture of many styles, forms and influences which Metcalfe may have plundered from the musical archives of his youth. At first hearing, the release reminded me predominantly of a rather 1980s cosmic sound from groups such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, Focus, Sky and Mike Oldfield together with more than a hint of cool jazz à la Chet Baker and Miles Davis.
During his career to date, John Metcalfe has not surprisingly worked with an exceptionally diverse range of musical genres, from the long-standing position as violist with the Duke Quartet to his collaborations as composer and arranger with such artists as Catatonia and George Michael. ‘The Inner Line’ is his first solo album as composer and the record company Black Box explains in the booklet notes that he, "seeks to seamlessly incorporate elements from these and other areas of his eclectic musical taste, sending the traditional barriers separating musical styles one stop further towards disintegration."
With the addition of a drummer/percussionist most of the tracks here are performed by members of the Duke Quartet, in various combinations. The Duke Quartet are regarded as one of Europe’s most exciting and innovative quartets who released a number of successful ‘classical’ recordings and often collaborate with a wide range of musicians such as Morrisey, Corrs, Blur, Simple Minds, Catatonia and Pretenders. The Duke Quartet’s boldly imaginative recordings and performances have established themselves as a dynamic and very individual ensemble praised for the quality of their musicianship, technique and diversity of sound repertoire.
Although not credited, among the soundscaping are clearly electronic sounds mixed with the acoustic textures; sounds not uncommon with those currently used in Jazz music by contemporary Scandinavian groups such as the Esbjorn Svensson Trio. Although less conventional in context this release demonstrates the breadth of music that is rammed into the classification marked as ‘classical music’.
Many of the thirteen tracks are linked and there is a consistency of ideas that, for the most part flow together successfully, but a general lack of purpose makes for fatiguing and unsatisfying listening at one sitting. ‘George’ is a dark sombre lament for viola over a filigree of processed sound, almost baroque in its exactitude, but attractive nevertheless. ‘Ray b’ for string quartet is almost karaoke music for jazz trumpet. The listener can expect Miles Davis to make an entry at any moment.
The title track ‘The Inner Line’ is particularly lacking in inspiration, but with ‘The Thrill is Gone’ we may have the standout work on the CD. Clearly with a nod towards Chet Baker’s laid-back style, it imaginatively mixes string harmonics with plaintive glissandi from the soloist. From these funky sounds emerges ‘1916’ and ‘Joe’, where Metcalfe demonstrates his accomplishment as a guitarist.
The Duke Quartet can be heard chugging away at times, a reminder of John Metcalfe’s day job, but a certain lack of passion and substance tends to present the music as rather sterile and squeaky clean. The mainly dull proceedings are enhanced by a sense of ‘what could have been’ by a sample of part of the opening theme from Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ which is mixed into ‘Eh? No! No!’ and in ‘Blue Ruby’ there is a sample by The Hilliard Ensemble of Pérotin’s ‘Beata Viscera’.
This is the second release from the Black Box label that I have reviewed this week and the booklet notes are again disappointingly sparse. Nothing of note is stated about the composer, the background to the 13 imaginatively titled pieces of music and their date of composition. The drummer/percussionist Ralph Salmins is not credited for his major contribution and it is not mentioned that it was the Duke Quartet, not member John Metcalfe individually, who composed ‘The Thrill is Gone’. The recording date and venue is not clear and perhaps the most serious omission in the booklet notes is not stating the various combination of instruments used on each track; which range from solo guitar on ‘Joe’ to string quartet and drums on ‘Schoenberg’.
The sound quality is excellent but although I found the music mildly interesting it was monotonous for the most part and generally uninspiring, lacking in both musical substance and emotional depth. In a minimalist atmosphere the recording provided an easy hour of indulgent scraps, phrases and riffs, strung together loosely with a rather 1980s sounding keyboard programming. Metcalfe does seem to get into his own groove, and repeated hearings reveal a certain structure and purpose to it all but boredom quickly sets in and there is nothing new here to get my pulse racing.
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