James Blackshaw makes gorgeous music; anyone can hear this. Whether or not classical guitar virtuosity is your thing, it would be difficult to deny that the man is an extraordinarily gifted guitar player whose music is transcendently exquisite. This is not to say the man is immune to criticism. In fact, it would not be terribly unreasonable to suggest that a great deal of his guitar ragas sound at least somewhat similar to each other. Granted, more attentive listeners notice the subtle touches that differentiate one of Blackshaw’s swirling guitar pieces from another, but it would be dishonest to pretend that his songs are entirely unalike. More broadly, it’s not particularly easy to distinguish one Blackshaw album from another. Play a couple of them in a row on your iTunes without interruption and you’ll have a hard time telling where one ends and another begins.
Then again, perhaps this is the curse of the distinctive musician. There may be some stylistic overlap in Blackshaw’s songs, but you will always know that you are listening to James Blackshaw. His talent for spiraling melancholic drones has earned him the respect and admiration of Michael Gira, noise folk innovator behind Swans and the Angels of Light. Blackshaw has left Tompkins Square to join Gira’s Young God Records who have released Blackshaw’s latest, The Glass Bead Game.
As it turns out, Young God Records is a perfect home for Blackshaw. The Glass Bead Game, though far less vocally oriented than the majority of the work on Young God Records, successfully indulges in the same delicate acoustic instrumentation that elevated The Angels of Light and Akron/Family to the pinnacle of their respective genres. Sure, “Cross” and “Bled” both rely upon spiraling 12-string acoustic guitars to create a hypnotic mood that will be familiar to fans of Blackshaw’s previous work, but his arrangements are expanding, quietly and confidently. “Cross” benefits from subtle female background vocals and “Arc” demonstrates over the course of it’s nearly nineteen minutes that Blackshaw’s abilities as a pianist closely rival his guitar playing abilities. Yet Blackshaw is not showy for the sake of being showy; his technical skill is used for mood building rather than ostentation.
Despite Blackshaw’s ability to run circles around his colleagues, the most impressive moment on The Glass Bead Game is “Fix,” a comparatively brief (in Blackshaw’s world, that’s still over five minutes) piece of elegiac piano and strings. Suffice to say, it’s stunningly gorgeous, comparable only to Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” in terms of chilly restraint. Don’t be surprised if film directors start tripping over themselves to use “Fix” to soundtrack scenes of thoughtful reflection.
But “Arc,” as it’s name somewhat indirectly implies, is the real star of the show here. A near perfect exercise in push and pull between moderation and grandeur, “Arc” opens with a few spare chords reminiscent of Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports, only to unfurl majestically into a dizzying web of winding piano and understated strings. Of course, nineteen minutes is a long time to be mesmerized, but “Arc” is well worth the time commitment.
While Blackshaw’s slowly expanding scope has limited the tonal variety of his work in the past, The Glass Bead Game confirms the sagacity of approaching change slowly and methodically. Rather than artificially force diversity into his repertoire, Blackshaw wisely waited until he knew how to utilize these ideas effectively. The Glass Bead Game is the culmination of this patience, and it was worth the wait.