James Blackshaw / The Glass Bead Game / Review / by Traviss Cassidy

He’s on his way to building a grand monument to the craft he and so many before him have lovingly treated...

Coke Machine Glow

James Blackshaw

The Glass Bead Game
(Young God; 2009)

Traviss Cassidy :: 07/06/2009

It’s helpful to compare the two to gain some context: Afro-beat
experimentalists NOMO and 12-string guitar composer James Blackshaw, though
wildly different in sound, have captivated me in recent years for exactly
the same reasons. Each already has a well-defined, recognizable aesthetic,
one they tweak and hone just enough with every release to keep those
interested pining for more. Each willingly flaunts its canonical influences
(for NOMO: Fela Kuti, Mulatu Astatke, and the Congotronics noise-mongerers;
for Blackshaw: Fahey and his Takoma disciples, Philip Glass, Steve Reich,
etc.) but synthesizes and toys with those bedrock foundations enough to
rightfully claim a bit of artistic ownership. Innovation is something to
strive for, but there’s something to be said for artists who so deftly
summate the strengths of others while adding a page or two of their own to
the book of, er, Greatness—and do so on such a regular basis.

The Glass Bead Game, more than any of his other releases, demonstrates this
principle, one that single-handedly sustains Blackshaw’s body of work. Last
year’s Litany of Echoes (2008) found the auteur embracing more overt
manifestations of minimalism in the piano-based pieces that book-ended the
album, yet those efforts felt largely removed from the expansive guitar
pieces that comprised the album’s core. Here, we immediately get “Cross,” a
stunning exercise in repetition in which the guitarist’s playing is propped
up by cello and violin (courtesy of Current 93 members John Contreras and
Joolie Wood, respectively) and buoyed by the vocals of Lavinia Blackwell, a
part that could easily have been one of the titular count in Music for 18
Musicians (1978). Each of the adornments is fully integrated into the whole;
nothing is tacked on or extraneous. Though Blackshaw has gussied up his
guitar in this manner since practically the beginning, here the results
sound more natural than ever.

Elsewhere, Blackshaw displays his growing talents for composing and
performing terribly affecting piano pieces. “Fix” is straightforward,
predictable, and yes, really fucking poignant; positioned in the album’s
center, it breaks up the other four pieces subtly but assuredly. “Arc,” on
the other hand, is simply epic; despite past attempts and fondles at such a
thing, it’s the first time Blackshaw’s been able to play the piano in
exactly the same way that he plays the guitar. The piece begins with a few
slow, repeated phrases before barreling into a dizzying bout of endurance
for a good ten minutes: the sustain pedal, allowing Blackshaw to watch notes
tumble and collapse upon one another—a trick he’d long mastered on the
guitar—creates a tunnel-like effect, a cavernous sound slowly evolving as he
introduces little nuances and ripples into his playing.

Up until now I may have made The Glass Bead Game out to be a subtle
re-invention of Blackshaw’s sound, which is partly true, but that belies how
slowly and carefully he’s molded his approach to get to this point. The
guitar-only pieces (“Key” and “Bled”) actually find the artist in stasis,
executing perfectly his basement guitar-virtuoso aesthetic, though with less
stunning results than in the past (The Cloud of Unknowing [2007] is still
his high-watermark in acoustic showmanship). This is hardly a problem if the
listener has the type of patience and appreciation for subtle
micro-evolutions Blackshaw so clearly demonstrates and champions throughout
his work. He’s on his way to building a grand monument to the craft he and
so many before him have lovingly treated; he just needs to make sure each
marble block is absolutely pristine before putting it down.