What does John Metcalfe sound like?
A towering, sweeping giant of orchestral gusto.
The review of John Metcalfe – Tree
Bold. Sweeping. Majestic. Wonderous. Those are four words I could use to describe ‘Tree’, the new album from John Metcalfe. Inspired by a trip to see Tāne Mahuta, the largest known living kauri tree in the world, John clearly had his sights and sounds set on big sounds. That’s exactly what his orchestral album delivers. An hour of symphonic joy and wonder that works best with the lights off.
Single ‘Xylem’ opens the album as a nine-minute coming of age. It introduces you to the world that John has created, as he explores all the different facets of being a tree over the course of a 24-hour period. As the xylem acts as a root, this ongoing swell of viola-led string arrangements spends the first near six minutes stretching its legs. As each pass of its motifs becomes more bombastic and full of life, it fully stretches out before moving into a playful, tiny machine like pizzicato bustle. This moves us into the playful ‘Canopy’ which revels in its wind instruments. From the bassy bassoons to the jaunty flutes, they sound like an animal galivanting across a canopy. There is youth, wonder and a fizzling energy wearing a curious mask. Underneath the strings is the faintest of twirling synths, and whilst John uses synths sparingly, they work as cute embellishments around the orchestrations.
‘Root to Leaf’ is an eleven-minute suite that starts off as a majestic, slow sweep of strings and synths. I could hear it scoring a beautiful nature documentary or forest time-lapse as the strings carefully rise up the octaves. Then, as if emulating cells at work, the second half of the track returns to a playground bustle. Light keyboards, cymbals and brass create a framework for a clever arrangement. It is as if each instrument has its own place in the tree of life, chirping as it moves. The short squiggles and bursts give a cuteness and approachable tone and you’d never think the track was eleven minutes long. ‘Stasis’ is a quieter, more serene version of the latter half of that track. Stately, homely, prim and proper – it’s the kind of track you’d hear on a well-to-do 80s or 90s light comedy.
John Metcalfe saves his most ethereal work for ‘Tāne Mahuta’. There is a communion here that is palpable to the listener. The careful use of whale song hiding in the background, echoing out line sonar. The light organ synths evoke Michael Stern’s ‘Chronus’ as if time has stood still. The light, lilting strings that lack a bass note for a long time before the organ takes its bold stance feel humbling and emotional. Then, as all the instrumentation comes together, John just lets the track rise… and rise… and rise. This is one of those tracks that demands to be played loudly. It is a song that I happily had on repeat in the dark and felt the emotions swelling in the pit of my stomach. The evocative scale of the six-minute continuous build-up just powered me in a way few pieces of music have in 2023. This track alone is a reason to buy the album.
We’ve still got 25 minutes to go though and now we’re settling in for the night. As John Metcalfe takes us like tourists on the tree’s cycle, we approach ‘Dusk’. It is here where orchestra and organ melt together to create a music driftwood. The track is constantly sunsetting ideas and motions, verging on classical ambient drones. It is extremely peaceful before we are led into the animal circus of ‘Night’. Here bird calls, crickets, galloping grass and a mysterious poise take over. The track has a throbbing underbelly that’s at times synth driven but at other times it’s orchestrally powered. It’s almost like the song is hunting for prey. It’s the paciest track on the album and arguably the most tense. That throb turns to a glistening shimmer for ‘Sunrise’ though, which sounds like it is about to become a Savannah song at times. Part ambient drone, part classical raj in a way, it’s a light and bright closure to a momentous, grand-scaled adventure.
There are moments of absolute brilliance scattered throughout ‘Tree’. The way the album arcs in pace and design, reusing motifs and ideas in different settings to create new moods – it just flows perfectly. John Metcalfe has created an album of sheer wonder and at times, it sounds bigger than my ears can imagine. A beautiful listen for any contemporary classical fan and also those who enjoy Philip Glass’ use of simplicity to create scale.
Recommended track: Tāne Mahuta
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