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JAMES BLACKSHAW/THE GLASS BEAD GAME/Review

Blurt Online / Jennifer Kelly

The Glass Bead Game is a dizzying achievement, showcasing not just Blackshaw's musical skills, but his vision and spiritual depth as a composer.

Blurt Online

http://blurt-online.com/reviews/view/1162/

05/29/2009
James Blackshaw

The Glass Bead Game
(Young God)

By JENNIFER KELLY

Twelve-string phenomenon James Blackshaw has long been known for conjuring
luxuriant, symphonic sounds out of his guitar. Indeed, even on pure solo
guitar recordings, like "River of Heaven" from the first Imaginational
Anthem compilation, it is hard to believe that one person, playing one
instrument could be responsible for all that cascading, shimmering,
iridescent beauty. But however expressive, however versatile Blackshaw can
make his acoustic instrument, it is apparently not quite enough. Here in his
eighth full-length (and first for Michael Gira's Young God imprint), he
extends that palette even further, adding guest vocals, violin, cello and
flute to the toolset - and even switching from guitar to piano for two
tracks. It is bold move, but it pays off. The Glass Bead Game is a dizzying
achievement, showcasing not just Blackshaw's musical skills, but his vision
and spiritual depth as a composer.

The album begins with its densest and most elaborately orchestrated piece,
the long, lovely "Cross." Here pastoral patterns of 12-string guitar
cascade over one another like running water in sunlight, the texture of the
piece gradually thickened with cello (that's John Contreras from Current 93)
and violin (Joolie Wood, also a Current 93 alum). Round the middle, we begin
to hear Lavinia Blackwall's vocals, looping in hypnotic counterpoints,
blossoming in wordless joy. It's lush, sensual, disorienting and
overwhelming. That the track just manages to skirt new age-y excess does not
take away from its power to transport.

Blackwell cuts back to just his own guitar in two tracks. "Bled" is all
measured melancholy, little figures that flourish and fade away. "Key",
later on, is more what you expect from Blackwell, rapid-picked flurries of
sun-speckled guitar notes, technically difficult, surely, yet played with a
light-fingered, light-hearted fleetness. Somewhat surprisingly, the guitar
prodigy turns toward the piano in two tracks. In "Fix" a simple, slow-paced
pattern of three or four chords repeats in meditative simplicity, as cello
and violin weave around it. "Arc", the disc's other long piece, is more
anthemic and full of drama, a bit of Copeland in its opening salvo. This
last track is particularly good, perhaps, after "Cross" the best on the
album - and like "Cross" the most successful in incorporating multiple
textures. Near the middle of "Arc", Blackwell shifts from a strong, simple
melody on the piano to lusher cascades of arpeggios blurred together in a
sustained mesh of overtones. It's piano, but played just like he plays the
guitar, and with the same transcendent grace.

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