John Metcalfe: The Appearance of Colour
Real World

Talk about an impressive CV. Among a long list of accomplishments, John Metcalfe has worked as a producer and arranger for Peter Gabriel and The Pretenders, played in Durutti Column and the Duke Quartet, and in 1989 co-founded (with Tony Wilson) Factory Classical, the pioneering label that helped bring Steve Martland's music to the masses. Metcalfe's The Appearance of Colour presents the classically trained multi-hyphenate in solo recording artist mode, though not for the first time: it's his fourth album under his own name, with The Inner Line (2000), Scorching Bay (2004), and A Darker Sunset (2008) arriving before.

Yet while The Appearance of Colour is released under Metcalfe's name, its music isn't performed by him alone. To create it, he brought on board drummer Andy Gangadeen, Red Snapper bassist Ali Friend, pianist Tom Cawley, and singer Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes) to augment his own electronics, strings, guitars, and vocals. Their contributions go a long way towards enhancing the live feel of the material, something that helps the project distance itself from the kind of airless perfection that can set in when programming is involved in the production process; Metcalfe's is the kind of music that, especially in its rousing moments, sounds destined for a live concert presentation.

Strings, acoustic bass, and piano humanize the material with their natural warmth, even if the album's that rare case where the separation between acoustic and electronic sounds generally collapses; it also could conceivably function as a primer for various recent trends in contemporary music. After all, few releases cover as many stylistic bases as Metcalfe's does: IDM, funk, post-rock, pop, drum'n'bass, classical minimalism (of both the Steve Reich and John Tavener kinds), and probably a few others besides. The sixty-seven-minute recording is an example of quality music that manages to be both experimental and accessible. It's also anything but minimal: Metcalfe's arrangements teem with detail, even if a single instrument is sometimes granted the lead role.

In a bold move, Metcalfe bookends the album with two long-form settings, the first, “Sun,” a twenty-minute epic and the closing title track a slightly shorter but no less ambitious setting. Panoramic in design, “Sun” develops patiently out of a luscious opening section dominated by harmonious vocal expressions, strings, and supple guitar lines before adding a drum'n'bass groove given a pronounced Red Snapper flavour thanks to Friend's participation. Aggressive, beat-powered moments alternate with meditative, strings-heavy sections in an oft-rapturous piece that plays and feels like a journey across multiple time zones. “The Appearance of Colour” at times registers as a first cousin to “Sun” when it similarly segues between strings-drenched and rhythmically charged sections plus revisits the layered vocal treatments of the opener.

The other pieces can't help but seem modest when heard alongside the framing settings, yet each short track includes something that distinguishes it from the others: warbling synthesizers in “The Silver Track,” Khan's vocal presence in the downtempo “Just Let Go,” crystalline guitar lines that shimmer through the instrumental funk workout “Gold, Green,” and so on. “Sycamore” resembles a Reich-Red Snapper mashup, the former in the Different Trains-like string patterns that appear and the latter in the track's acoustic bass-and-drums groove. The danger in fashioning music of an accessible type is that banality is but an arm's length away when the material starts to become too populist in nature. It's a trap that Metcalfe generally avoids falling into, though a few moments in the closing piece do come close. But on the whole, he aims commendably high on the album and for the most part succeeds.

May 2015