JAMES BLACKSHAW/THE GLASS BEAD GAME/ReviewJames Blackshaw has received a fair amount of attention recently for his distinctive fingerpicking style. Still in his twenties, heÂ’s already managed to release an impressive back-catalogue that showcases his virtuoso command of the twelve-string acoustic guitar.
James Blackshaw: The Glass Bead Game
Reviewed By: Dominic B. Simpson
Label: Young God Records
october 1 2009
James Blackshaw has received a fair amount of attention recently for his
distinctive fingerpicking style. Still in his twenties, he’s already managed
to release an impressive back-catalogue that showcases his virtuoso command
of the twelve-string acoustic guitar. Yet he’s no guitar-shop muso:
Blackshaw’s milieu is very much the experimental and noise scenes that
proliferate around London and elsewhere, with promoters such as No Signal,
Miles of Smiles, Upset The Rhythm and others. He is not the acoustic
singer-songwriter type who you can catch most days of the week at the
Troubadour or Kashmir clubs in London.
His songs are instrumental, often touching the ten-minute mark, and imbued
with a beauty of sense of wonderment at the world – an already mature body
of work that has led Young God Records head honcho (and former Swans
frontman) Michael Gira to snap him up on Young God for this release.
A prolific artist, despite his age, this is something like Blackshaw’s sixth
album in the space of five years – and that doesn’t include Brethren Of The
Free Spirit, his collaboration with Dutch lutenist and kindred spirit Jozef
Van Wissem; work with Van Wissem and Espers’ cellist Helena Espvall on a
curated compilation 'The Garden Of Forking Paths'; appearing on record with
Current 93; and an endless slew of live dates, some of which have been
recorded and released. Clearly, the man has one hell of a work ethic.
And for the most part, he keeps up the quality on “The Glass Bead Game”,
which contains only five tracks, all of which are long (the shortest track
being nearly six minutes in length). Taking up the baton that dazzling
tracks like 'Running to the Ghost' laid down, the album begins arrestingly
with 'Cross', a reverbed-up riot of Blackshaw’s masterclass in
fingerpicking, and a clear example (just as 'Running…' did) of how Blackshaw
utilises the possibilities of the twelve-string in open tunings to obtain
orchestral-like effects. He’s joined by violin and cello, augmenting the
momentum of the song with it’s own melodic lines, while singer Lavinia
Blackwall utters wordless, fluttering vocal melodies, using her throat
distinctively. The song drifts in a beatific state, with the whole a
beautiful, languid component of instruments that combine perfectly. Indeed,
the specifics of what each person is playing is less important than the
whole here, with each sound complimenting each other. It floats up to the
heavens like an angel.
By contrast, 'Bled' is a far more moody, reflective piece, slowly working
its way methodically to its conclusion against a hypnotic droning organ in
the background, before changing tack halfway through and launching into
Blackshaw’s dexterously fast fingerpicking style. It’s also on here that you
can hear the influence of John Fahey, the pioneering American guitarist
whose use of alternative tunings, modal raga workouts and Eastern-tinged
folk workouts has been so influential on the current scene of acts such as
Six Organs of Admittance, Jack Rose, and numerous others.
'Fix'”, meanwhile, sees Blackshaw taking to the piano stool just as he did
with 'Gate of Horn' from last year's 'Litany of Echoes'. With no guitar at
all, and the piano’s only embellishment being a subtle violin, it’s a
minimalist, reflective piece that could easily be a Michael Nyman soundtrack
on a Peter Greenaway film, or in a Philip Glass score. It’s mesmerising,
subtle, deeply contemplative stuff, and sets the scene for the solo guitar
track 'Key', in which Blackshaw focuses on his trance-inducing guitar
picking without any extraneous overdubs. Evoking the highlights of his
discography, the track is so fragile it sounds like it could be recited in a
church, with its chiming simplicity and echoing beauty; it wouldn’t be out
of place on an album by Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Part.
Finally, 'Arc' begins with some more quiet piano motifs before exploding
into a colour of light; over the next twenty minutes, the track climaxes and
digresses with all kinds of pastoral tones, Blackshaw is joined by a number
of other musicians including Blackwall and Current 93 members John Contreras
and Joolie Wood on cello and violin respectively. His adept piano playing on
the track, while not quite as advanced as his skilful command on the twelve
string, is nonetheless a joy to behold when he lets loose with flourishes.
You will be spellbind as the track reaches its beautiful, devastating
conclusion, a hymn-like piece of music that restores faith in human nature
at this most difficult of times.