JAMES BLACKSHAW â€“ THE GLASS BEAD GAME Review
popmatters.com / by Matthew Flander
It feels strange to say James Blackshaw has incorporated more orchestration into his new album, The Glass Bead Game. His records barely seem to hold the depth and dimensions of his guitar play alone. How can he even fit cello and other strings and even voice on to his record without weighing it down, overstuffing it or bloating it with sound?
16 July 2009
The Glass Bead Game
By Matthew Fiander
It feels strange to say James Blackshaw has incorporated more orchestration
into his new album, The Glass Bead Game. His records barely seem to hold the
depth and dimensions of his guitar play alone. How can he even fit cello and
other strings and even voice on to his record without weighing it down,
overstuffing it or bloating it with sound?
Well, in the way Blackshaw seems to do so much with so little on all his
records, he does the same with newer elements on The Glass Bead Game.
“Cross” takes on most of the new pieces to his music, and Blackshaw doesn’t
try to widen the expanse of his sound with them, but instead, he deepens it
with brilliantly spare elements. As he conjures notes from his guitar, other
instruments such as cello and violin swirl in to bolster it, giving its
shimmering echo just that much more depth. The way all these strings mix and
build together is intoxicating enough, but the real power of the track comes
when a voice enters the fever dream. Lavinia Blackwall, a classically
trained singer, contributes some stunning vocals. You barely notice her at
first, floating through the background like some benevolent haunt, but then
she asserts herself with a series of tumbling, avian notes, beautiful little
puffs of air that sound like it hit Blackshaw’s thick bed of notes and
cascades elegantly down it.
That track, along with the gigantic closer “Arc”, bookend the album with two
of the best movements heard in Blackshaw’s young but prolific career.
Between them, the spaced-out clusters of notes that open “Bled” burst into a
fury that is a little more pressing and lively than Blackshaw’s usual
pastoral overtones. “Fix” is a simpler track, with plain chords run off on a
piano and keening strings moving effectively over them. And “Key” leaves
Blackshaw’s 12-string to its own stunning devices, and though we’ve heard
this before from him, this new number still sounds fresh and vital.
But “Arc” proves to be the young player’s most stunning achievement to date,
and it is what makes this album so special. There are strings, clarinet and
flute to be heard, but Blackshaw’s piano is its own force of nature on the
18-minute-plus track. Once again he builds with simple chords on the piano.
But after a few minutes of luring you in with small-chord phrasings,
Blackshaw begins his labyrinthine movement over the keys. Strings groan over
it, but as the song moves and Blackshaw ups the sustain, it becomes clear
this isn’t the same exploration of repetitive sound we’ve heard from him.
Blackshaw takes a fine chisel to each note, wearing its edges away and
blending it together as the song moves along. As “Arc” peaks and maintains
that impossibly high peak for an astounding length of time, it transforms.
It is no longer a piece of music you are listening to, but an atmosphere
that has surrounded you. It is staggering in its beauty, simple in its
elements but huge in scope, and just a handful of these notes can emote as
well as the most well-penned lyrics.
For someone as technically brilliant as Blackshaw, it is a feat to be so
evocative on record. Now that he has mastered piano and guitar and now that
the actual playing is no longer something he has to think about, Blackshaw
is working to pull feeling out of his sound. It’s not so much about wowing
us with the speed of his playing as it is putting that speed to use to
create a world that is emotional and confused, beautiful and staggeringly
big. Blackshaw can’t help but pull us all in it. He’s done it again with The
Glass Bead Game, bringing other players and new noises into his sound that
push his playing to new heights. As if his old heights weren’t high enough.