James Blackshaw/The Glass Bead Game/Review Schleicher

James Blackshaw has released a number of introspective and genre-defying records since his debut on Digitalis Recordings. He has, however, arguably saved his best work for his debut on Young God

James Blackshaw, "The Glass Bead Game"

Written by Lucas Schleicher

Sunday, 17 May 2009

James Blackshaw has released a number of introspective and genre-defying
records since his debut on Digitalis Recordings. He has, however, arguably
saved his best work for his debut on Young God. With a couple of familiar
Current 93 faces behind him, The Glass Bead Game exhibits Blackshaw's
experimental preferences, but also showcases his strength as an emotive and
able songwriter.

Why Blackshaw named his album after a Herman Hesse novel is anyone's guess.
Strong religous and romantic allusions aside, Blackshaw's music is simply
and strikingly hypnotic. Its mantra-like quality is perhaps all that is
required to share a name with Hesse's meditation on the intellectual and
mystical. But, this hypnotic color is something every Blackshaw record has
featured; his love for the likes of Terry Riley and Erik Satie is not hard
to discern and his guitar-playing style lends itself to adjectives like
"rolling" and "kaleidoscopic." He has flirted with American folk music and
toed the line between classical and modern guitar performances. At a young
age he has explored more musical territory than many bands do over the
course of an entire career. What differentiates this album from his previous
efforts is the quality of the voices added to the arrangements. Accompanying
him throughout are Joolie Wood, John Contreras, and Lavinia Blackwall.
Flutes, clarinets, violins, pianos, and a stellar vocal performance all
support and deepen Blackwell's already sophisticated and intense approach to
composition and performance. It's as if this is the band he has always
wanted with him. Together with their talents, Blackshaw sounds more spectral
and colorful than ever.

"Cross," the opening song, immediately communicates that Blackshaw and
company are out to impress. With all pistons firing, Blackshaw paints a
dramatic, but meditative melodic picture with his guitar. His strings are
seemingly caught in a never-ending upward movement, each note intent on
elevating the song to a higher and more introspective level. In the
background, violins and cellos radiate a steady current of calm hums and
ghostly utterances. Then, with just a brief pause, the band begins to weave
their disparate melodic and harmonic patterns together, further enrichening
the song's lively character. Each member bends their instrument, wringing
from it more emotion than was present the moment before. This pattern
continues until Lavinia Blackwall adds her voice to the mix. Wordlessly, she
accentuates the song's beauty with eruptions of melody and effortless soul.
Her voice seems to steam off of the music, occuring as a natural result of
all the activity already churning beneath it. It's a stunning way to start a
record and, after hearing it for the first time, I was uncertain that
anything could live up to it. Smartly, Blackshaw goes into deep meditation
with both "Bled" and "Fix." His nimble fingers create a ton of sound in both
cases, but both songs are less showy than "Cross" and both find Blackshaw
focusing on simple and direct arrangements. The latter is a brief and lovely
piano-based song fleshed out by understated and cinematic string
accompaniments. "Key" bridges the gap between all the previous songs and the
concluding "Arc," which is as epic as anything Blackshaw has attempted
before. It's moderate pace and gentle dynamics pave the way for the epic
conclusion that follows.

"Arc" begins as though it were meant to be played at a funeral. Although the
tones pulled from the piano are largely major and bright, they eminate an
evocative quietude that only remembrance and yearning can accompany. After a
short time Blackshaw's piano erupts into glissandi, as though an epiphany
hit him in mid-song. As the piano fluctuates between high and low notes, the
song and all of its parts develop a crystalline texture. Each of the
instruments begin to blend into one another. "Arc" eventually becomes a mass
of glowing sound with different elements peaking their heads above the
cascade of music that's been created. The song completely destroys all sense
of time and place. Instruments bleed into one another and become
disassociated from their source. Whether a particular sound is being made by
a voice, an instrument, or a combination thereof can be difficult to
determine. Played at loud volumes, it's an absolutely transfixing and
ecstatic piece of music capable of procuring an emotional response from the
listener. After I heard it for the first time, I found myself with my jaw
agape and my breath left short. Something very magical happened when these
musicians came together. I can only hope it won't be the last time we see
Blackshaw collaborating in such a fashion. It's hard not to talk in a
superlative manner about this record; it is majestic and deserving of more
accolades and praise than I can possibly write.