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James Blackshaw - The Glass Bead Game

  by Dominic B. Simpson

published: 27 / 6 / 2009

James Blackshaw - The Glass Bead Game
Label: Young God Records
Format: CD


Spellbinding latest album from distinctive London-based fingerpicking guitarist, James Blackshaw, who, despite being still in his twenties, has already managed to release an impressive back-catalogue of material

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.

Track Listing:-
1 Cross
2 Bled
3 Fix
4 Key
5 Arc

Label Links:-

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