The metal crowd are an often maligned and misunderstood lot, you know. Often seen (wrongly) as a working-class lad’s culture, the stereotypes stem from the moral panics of heavy metal music in the 80s and 90s which led to an infamous court case. Judas Priest had to respond to accusations that they had recorded subliminal messages on their cover of Spooky Tooth’s song ‘Better By You, Better Than Me’ that encouraged their fans to kill themselves. Metal never entirely recovered from its label as the devil’s music, largely not helped by the church burning antics of Nordic black metallers, but it is a rich and varied genre incorporating a wide range of sounds, tones and moods. Jo Quail’s work, though not entirely ‘metal’ in the purest sense, is an example of how far the boundaries of one musical style can stretch and be shaped into something far removed from the misrepresentation of metalheads as beer swilling and socially inept neanderthals.

This is an intricate neo-classical album which only really hits obvious ‘metal’ territory with the inclusion of the guitar parts from guest musicians on a couple of the tracks. For the most part, Exsolve shares similarities with the work of Hildur Gudnadóttir and Stars of the Lid in its seething tension and poise, and brings to mind visuals of bleak and unforgiving landscapes. Instrumental music often evokes imagery for the listener, and this is no exception. Barren terrain, saturated colour palettes and a mood of desolation are all conjured up in the mind’s eye as Quail delivers a pensive, restrained and ultimately wonderful album.

‘Forge – Of Two Forms’ is mournful in tone, with stretched notes that descend like the wail of the wind on a dimly lit morning. There is an enveloping sense of gloom throughout the album, with little by way of any uplift, and it is in this introspective sense of dolefulness that the listener can be enveloped by the music’s persistence and stubbornness. The song has hints of a less direct and more musically articulated Godspeed You! Black Emperor with its ability to slowly build towards a crescendo that is never fully realised. It is Quail’s ability to frustrate the listener with her reluctance to provide a musical denouement in her work that is most beguiling. The song structures on Exsolve as a whole are tight and are never allowed to be fully set free by the obvious. This is an album which is not exactly ground-breaking, but also refuses to use the cheap tricks that so many other artists and bands succumb to.

‘Mandrel Cantus’ starts with Quail hitting her cello to produce sounds like an old, creaking door or unexplained footsteps on floorboards in an unoccupied room above you – it’s spooky and entirely enthralling. Quail has experimented over the years with loop pedals and producing unearthly sounds from her cello, and this is exemplified here.

She is as far removed from Julian Lloyd Webber and other smug horrors of the classical world. She scrapes her cello, makes it squall and picks at it to produce a song with many layers, from horror soundtrack to pixie-footed folk music, all in one melting pot of writhing tension. Truth be told, though, the track is a little overplayed with the guitar over the top which, to these ears at least, is an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction from the gorgeous textures of the cello which underpins the track. You can’t please everyone, I suppose.

The unrelenting tone of sorrow is explored further on ‘Causleen’s Wheel’, which is a composition that is all too aware that the space between notes is often as important as what is played. A mournful refrain is looped with subtle complementary lines played over the top, the gaps between notes being a key component of the arrangement. This is the most obviously ‘classical’ track on the album, and it is wonderful. It builds for what seems like forever before a crash of drums and a female vocal incantation which is buried in the mix to make it almost inaudible at times. Jo Quail resists the temptation to take the track towards full-on metal mode, instead building layer upon layer of cello in an almost discordant manner. There is beauty in the spaces and in the heady rush of noise.

The reissued version now comes with a new track. ‘Reya Paven’ picks up the baton from ‘Causleen’s Wheel’ in pace and tone and is another mournful slice of wonderment. There is an elegant feel to its fragmented structure, with occasional bursts of noise breaking the elongated spells of quietude, as Quail once again looks to deliver something to the audience which they may not fully expect. It is an outstanding way to finish the album and is the highlight here. Even though it goes over the ten minute mark it feels way too short.

Exsolve is an album which, although niche, will no doubt attract a range of listeners who aren’t overly snobbish about the tribal elements of their tastes. Neo-classical, metal and post-rock fans are all well served here. Each would no doubt favour certain aspects of the work over others, as this is an album of many layers, but there is also a sense that Quail is absolutely not pandering to anyone else’s tastes and sensibilities – the audience have to meet her on her terms.