The fact that The Appearance Of Colour is only John Metcalfe’s fourth solo album in a career that spans over 30 years may on the surface suggest a less-than-swift rate of work, but a more detailed assessment of his background reveals a very different picture. His involvement in music runs far deeper and wider than solo recordings – Metcalfe was a member of The Durutti Column during the 1980s and 1990s and co-founded the highly regarded Duke Quartet, in which he still plays viola. He has also become something of a go-to man for high profile musicians who require a knowledgeable and skillful arranger for their songs. It is in this capacity that he has worked with Blur, Morrissey, Coldplay, Simple Minds, The Pretenders and Peter Gabriel over the last two decades.
It is this latter role which stands out on The Appearance Of Colour – especially with regard to the precise construction and clean, meticulous management of sound that is evident from the beginning. The combining of orchestral/chamber & electronic music isn’t new but recent years have seen the two worlds intersect with increasing regularity. It’s an approach that Metcalfe has explored on previous solo albums but is fine-tuned to a new level here. It also offers another pair of contrasts, namely the balance between micro and macro musical factors (detail versus scale) and the counteraction between the emotional warmth of the album and the more cerebral aspects. On the latter, hearing Metcalfe contextualise his music shows he’s not afraid of big ideas or ambitious extrapolations – his notes on the album see him compare his music to references from the natural world, synaesthesia and the relationship between the spatial and the musical.
It is encapsulated on Sun, the multi-chaptered, twenty minute long suite that opens the album. It opens in similar fashion to Englabörn by Jóhann Jóhannsson before being taken over by off-shooting and ricocheting electronica. Moments of frailty that recall Sigur Rós at their prime are also filtered in and in a roundabout kind of way it also seems to share unlikely similarities in sound, scale and structure to Paddy McAloon‘s I Trawl The Megahertz, albeit without the sense of overriding sadness. It’s quite an opening.
Metcalfe has previously provided arrangement duties on Bat For Lashes records but on Just Let Go the relationship is flipped with Natasha Khan contributing vocals. It’s a good example of the prismatic nature of many of the tracks on the album, feeling at times as if light has been passed through many of the pieces, acting as a refracting and reshaping presence before emerging at the end.
Kite and Parsal occupy different ground meanwhile, being modern classical vignettes of the traditional variety that are content to remain in the background. They are followed by the perfectly formed pair of Gold, Green and Sycamore which are both effervescent, fresh and more representative of the merging of electronic and chamber music that runs through the album. The piano-centred Besancon exerts an anchoring effect before the slow-building poignancy of the title track pulls everything neatly together. It is such a successful outing that it’s hard not to think that now may be a good time for Metcalfe to move away from the musical shadows to a more prominent position, where his own compositions get the exposure and attention they deserve.