Album Reviews

John Metcalfe – Tree

(Real World) UK release date: 22 September 2023

The twenty four hour life cycle of a tree is re-imagined through a contemporary classical lens with stunning results

John Metcalfe - Tree John Metcalfe’s musical career started back in he early 1980s with him playing viola in acclaimed Manchester post-punk outfit The Durutti Column. Since then he has balanced writing arrangements for a range of high profile artists alongside composing his own music, which has resulted in six solo albums to date. The artists he has worked with on the arrangement front include the likes of U2, Coldplay, Simple Minds, Blur, George Michael and Peter Gabriel, a set of names which clearly says something about the regard in which he is held (the album is released on Gabriel’s Real World Records).

Most of his previous solo albums have featured a richly detailed synthesis of different musical elements whether chamber, orchestral, electronic, percussive or vocal in nature (2015’s The Appearance Of Colour offers a good representation of his ability to blend styles engagingly). His new album sees him take inspiration from nature, specifically the tree, delivering a soundtrack that imagines the twenty four hour life cycle of a tree through a contemporary classical lens. “My new album is about describing our relationship with something as every-day and extraordinary as a tree, and how it can be an incredibly important part of who we are” he explains. The inspiration came from two key sources, firstly his reaction to seeing Tāne Mahuta, the largest known living kauri tree in the world in New Zealand and also the desire within himself to write at scale for this album.

Whereas his previous albums combined different musical components, Tree exists very much in a chamber/orchestral capacity with strings providing the fundamental sound. There’s a thematic consistency and musical purity here that places him comfortably alongside the likes of modern classical luminaries such as Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Erland Cooper while fans of ensembles like Penguin Cafe and A Winged Victory For The Sullen will find much to enjoy on Tree.

Opening piece Xylem encapsulates the album’s essence, projecting both grandeur and finesse. A filigree delicacy also runs through Canopy while Root To Leaf features lush, methodical orchestral brushstrokes that give way to Steve Reich-like motifs. Most of the pieces on Tree clock in over eight minutes, reflecting Metclafe’s ambition to create something that has lasting depth but Stasis is the exception, a carefully pieced together, moving miniature that rewards close attention.

Tāne Mahuta recalls the holy minimalism of Arvo Pärt and Dusk continues the conceptual journey, arguably the most serene and ambient movement on the album. Night meanwhile offers one of the most interesting moments, sounding like electronic music recalibrated for orchestra (Metcalfe preferred the description of “club music for nature”). There’s definitely a sense of it successfully capturing the mystery and exciting possibilities of the dark.

Sunrise closes the album, an appropriate end to the album’s natural, organic sonic evolution. It seals a stunning listen that very much confirms that while Metcalfe is undoubtedly an in-demand arranger he’s also equally skilled in creating ambitious musical statements of his own.

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John Metcalfe – Tree
John Metcalfe – The Appearance Of Colour