James Blackshaw’s New Classic

Brian Howe


James Blackshaw
The Glass Bead Game
Young God Records; May 26 2009

Brethren of the Free Spirit
The Wolf Also Shall Dwell with the Lamb
Important Records; November 11 2008

James Blackshaw’s habit of archaic titling makes it mildly surprising to discover that the British 12-string guitarist is only in his late-twenties, a lapsed punk now composing virtuosic incantations of an often-medieval bent. But his titles perfectly capture the arcane aura of his precise, delirious music. One of his albums, The Cloud of Unknowing, is named after a fourteenth-century spiritual guidebook. Another, Litany of Echoes, is book-ended by two tracks named after the mythical gates of ivory and horn (most famously mentioned in The Odyssey and The Aeneid, as well as figuring in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman) from which false and true dreams, respectively, originate.

What seems at first like a rather serious concept about navigating between truth and fiction is revealed, at the end, to also be a sort of dark joke: the gates of truth and lies are identical, other than the droning strings hung around the former like tinsel. The balance of gravity and playfulness in Blackshaw’s labyrinthine music owes a debt to Borges, which he paid by naming his compilation of experimental music for solo stringed instruments Garden of Forking Paths. Channeling lush, idiosyncratic classical guitar (think Fahey, Basho, Kottke) with the hypnotic rigor of ambient and post-minimal aesthetics, he gins up deep rumbles on the lower strings, glimmering melodies on the higher ones, evoking again a pair of metaphysical gates through which mysteries pass.

Like most of Blackshaw’s work, his newest album, The Glass Bead Game, is both seductive and impregnable; an imposing seaside cliff in the distance to which no road arrives. The album is named after Hermann Hesse’s final novel, but it’s easy to imagine that it’s another homage: Blackshaw might be from an alternate universe where Philip Glass dedicated himself more to the guitar than the piano. The composer’s iconic style is writ large in these five compositions, which rush and stream in tranquil ecstasy. “Cross” recalls Glass’ Music in 12 Parts, with voice-like strings plaiting eternally through the latticework of Blackshaw’s guitar. And “Fix,” one of the album’s two piano-led pieces, directly quotes from Glass’ solo piano work, although its orderly ranks of chords are rendered in the delicately wafting style of Erik Satie (or the modern-day piano-romantic Eluvium).

Individually, the piano pieces don’t wow like the guitar pieces: “Fix” is pretty, but only pretty. “Arc” is more ambitious; Blackshaw basically nails the sustain pedal to the floor for an eighteen-minute overtone odyssey, simmering with strings and winds. Their titles describe them well: one is static, the other developing. But even though he lacks the subtlety of technique on piano that he possesses so abundantly on guitar, the piano pieces actually improve The Glass Bead Game overall. They serve a crucial function as little ear oases. The appeal of Blackshaw’s playing is how he spikes the broad cascades of ambient music with the corporality of fingers twanging strings. He’s deft enough to pick out prismatic melodic patterns while maintaining rich harmonic drones. But the very relentlessness which defines him, and the broad expanses of his songs, can be enervating if you’re in a frazzled mood, or the wrong needling arpeggio catches your ear. “Arc” and “Fix” are coolly tiled resting points amid the deep, evolving wall-to-wall shag of the guitar pieces.

Another instance of welcome space on The Glass Bead Game is the first half of “Bled,” where a chord progression unfurls in long, regal strides. Blackshaw’s music is always stately, but more seldom is it this austere. That austerity comes to the fore on The Wolf Also Shall Dwell with the Lamb by Brethren of the Free Spirit (named, of course, for a thirteenth- and fourteenth-century antinomian Christian movement), a collaboration between Blackshaw and Jozef van Wissem, a Renaissance-style lutenist from the Netherlands with a scarily mathematical mind. The album is more aloof and white-cube-like than Blackshaw’s solo one, and might trump it for listeners of a more serene disposition.

Every trace of elegant clutter vanishes from “The Sun Tears Itself From the Heavens and Comes Crashing Down Upon the Multitude.” If The Glass Bead Game evokes Philip Glass, this track owes to Brian Eno. Imagine Music for Airports unplugged: chords ring out in a cool void and gently rock to a stop. Having established this field, Blackshaw and van Wissem begin to animate it on the title track, where their gently dueling licks are complexly honeycombed––both spacious and densely structured. If Glass Bead Game is somewhat remote, it sounds positively gregarious next to Brethren of the Free Spirit’s work, in large part because van Wissem’s affinity for melodic palindromes and precise grids of microtonal intervals are expressive in an exceptionally mannered way. “Into the Dust of the Earth” has the dispassionate allure of a relic scrubbed clean by contemporary hands. Both albums are exceedingly fine if you derive pleasure or enchantment from processing the minute mutations of patterns, although Glass Bead Game has the added benefit of spontaneity. Blackshaw’s dreams feel brittle and precious because they’re from so long ago, but he continues to prove their insistence and durability.

Image on front page cropped from a photo by Dorthe Winter.  Preview some of the new album on Blackshaw’s Myspace page. And also see Blackshaw’s page on Young God Records