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Music Review: James Blackshaw – The Glass Bead Game

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If talent is handed out by God then James Blackshaw must have been near the front of the queue.

Having said that, no matter how vital natural talent is, it isn’t everything. You then need to combine it with totally committed devotion, dedication, and an all consuming passionate drive. Then, and only then, can you even contemplate releasing an album like this.

Michael Gira is the man who, as head of Young God Records, had the vision to bring Devendra Banhart to a wider world, myself included. Now he has added the remarkable James Blackshaw to the label.

The first album on the label is this, The Glass Bead Game. Consisting of five exquisitely performed pieces, it is a work of extraordinary beauty and complexity.
Somehow though, James makes it all sound so damned effortless and yet anyone who has ever picked up a wooden box with six or, in James’s case, twelve strings stretched across it’s face will know, it is anything but.

His journey to this point has been just as remarkable. He was at one time a player with punk bands in England. Then he heard the likes of John Fahey and Robbie Basho and to put it in a clichéd way, it changed his life.

I have visions of a young punk locking himself in his bedroom with his guitar as his only companion. With food being pushed under the door, he remains unseen and many years later he re-emerges blinking into the light once again. He picks up the guitar and behold he can play like a Young God. That is, actually, pretty close to the truth.

This incredibly beautiful album is his latest in a line of solo releases that has seen his reputation growing steadily as the word of his work spreads. In 2004 he released Celeste and followed that with Lost Prayers And Motionless Dances.

Sunshrine arrived in 2005, O True Believers and Waking Into Sleep both followed in 2006. The Cloud Of Unknowing in 2007 led the way for last year’s album Litany Of Echoes. 2009 brings us The Glass Bead Game.

The accolades have literally poured in with the likes of Billboard, Rolling Stone, Uncut, Pitchfork, The Times, The New York Times, and The Observer tripping over themselves to find adequate descriptions of his music. It is a position that I now find myself in having listened to The Glass Bead Game.

James plays his twelve string with such intensity, subtlety, drama, and hypnotic radiance that it flows from your speakers with an all consuming symphonic depth. As I struggle to find the right superlatives it is the word hypnotic I am most pleased with. His playing often takes the form of a mantra and has in places a strong vibe of a beautiful raga.

This meditative music evokes a series of powerful images taking you way beyond where mere words can. It is, in short, an extraordinary achievement from an extraordinarily gifted man. He doesn’t waste words on titles leaving your mind to expand upon the themes within. As a result the names of the tracks are misguidedly simple belying their intricate depth, “Cross”, “Bled”, “Fix”, “Keys”, and “Arc”.

As much as I hate the word, which is often corrupted by modern day corporate crap-speak, his playing cascades, and swirls around you, massaging your senses, and surrounding you with misty colours.

It also contains a myriad of contradictions. It is intense and yet soothing. Complex and yet compelling. It is subtle and yet at the same time dramatic. Whatever words you wish to choose, and believe me it is a challenge, the album is totally and utterly absorbing.

In morbid fear of redundant repetition (that coupling being a good example in itself) I do not intend to attempt to dissect this album track for track. Save to say, that there are many moments of jaw dropping beauty encased within the instrumental pieces on offer.

The eighteen minute “Arc” which ends the album in a swirl of textured brilliance is, quite simply, one of the most thought provoking instrumental pieces I have ever heard. It leaves me believing that if the sky had a sound, and if heaven had a theme tune then this would be it. Such is the emotional impact of the piece.  

James Blackshaw may have been at the head of the queue when gifts were handed out but his talent goes beyond his remarkable playing. There is a depth to his writing, a blissful beauty and atmosphere to his music which contains a definite spirituality making this album perfectly placed for these troubled times.

Listen for yourself on James Blackshaw's MySpace page.

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About Jeff Perkins