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James Blackshaw

The Glass Bead Game

(Young God; US: 26 May 2009; UK: 25 May 2009)

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.


Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.

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