Bracingly transcendent display by folk virtuoso. Ever since this twentysomething Londoner burst onto the insular and puritanical steel-string guitar scene, he’s been releasing albums at an annual pace. But for his eighth record, Blackshaw moves beyond those confines, melding his mesmeric, masterful technique with cello and violin contributions from members of experiment folk group Current 93 and setting the wordless vocals of Trembling Bells’ Lavinia Blackwall to the driving, haunting opener “Cross.” Then at the piano bench for the poignant ballad “Fix” and the stunning, assured finale “Arc,” Blackshaw makes you forget all about his guitar and your earthly cares. Andy Beta Spin/ July
Listening to James Blackshaw perform, you would never guess that he got his start in music by playing in a punk band. The 12-string guitarist is best known for his lush, symphonic compositions. Blackshaw recently sat down with NPR’s Guy Raz to talk about his musical style and his latest album, The Glass Bead Game.
Blackshaw is often likened to John Fahey for the experimental quality of his music, but the comparison only goes so far. Blackshaw cites a broad spectrum of influences, including American minimalism and liturgical music. It was his love for the latter that drew him to the 12-string.
“It was like an immediate shift in the way that I played,” Blackshaw says. “The instrument really rings out.”
His music seems to have a church-like quality. His guitar mimics an entire orchestra.
The lushness of his music is made possible by his impressive technical virtuosity. Blackshaw’s playing style is physically demanding and at times painful. But he enjoys the challenge.
“There’s so much rapid movement in my right hand that sometimes you do just sort of cramp up,” Blackshaw says. “It’s like running, and there’s a point when it gets quite difficult. But if you go through that point then it becomes quite easy.”
Blackshaw’s music is uplifting, but he feels his best work is written when he is sad.
“I find it incredibly cathartic to write music,” he says.
Contrary to what many believe, Blackshaw says that there is no cinematic element in his writing process. But he would like to try his hand at scoring a film – a horror film, to be specific. However, it’s unclear whether Blackshaw can make the 12-string sound scary.
“It’s quite a sweet-sounding instrument,” he says.Phil Harrell/NPR All Things Considered 6/29/09
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.
Matt Fiander/Popmatters.com 7/17
Much is made of James Blackshaw’s age (he has yet to hit 30), but this is one case where it doesn’t seem to be mere reflexive laziness on the part of the press: it really is something that someone so young has become such a master of the 12-string. Even Blackshaw, who seems perfectly modest and polite, has admitted to Pitchfork that he’s come to a point where he’s not quite sure what’s left to do on his instrument of choice, while he did come across one new prospective challenge during a piece on NPR: scoring a horror movie.
The Glass Bead Game, his seventh studio album, is a product of Blackshaw asking himself “What’s next?” In particular, he’s become smitten with the piano, which takes the baton from the guitar on “Fix,” the album’s third track (there are only five in all, but one spans ten minutes and another almost twenty). Blackshaw isn’t yet as much of a head-turner or ear-seducer on piano as he is on guitar, but he’s still playing to his strengths: graceful, patient compositions that are rich in nuance. Patience is indeed a virtue; as much technique as Blackshaw may have gleaned from John Fahey & Co., he’s also studied his minimalism and classical composition, and the recurring motifs and repetitive threads in his songs may be what listeners identify as “cinematic.” The melancholy center of “Fix” almost sounds like something that could have been on an ambient album like Moby’s Animal Rights (though they are seemingly miles away in both genre and cred, they are both students of the game – and know a thing or two about compelling drama).
But let’s back up. If there’s an album this year with a more beautiful and beguiling opener than The Glass Bead Game’s “Cross,” I have yet to hear it. Everything crystallizes for Blackshaw here – anchored as usual by his wonderfully expressive playing, and perfectly melding the fuller sound he’s chasing. A string section heightens the tension, and Lavinia Blackwall floats above with a lovely, wordless vocal melody.
The other obviously noteworthy track – “Bled” and “Key” are each captivating, but more familiar – is the closing odyssey “Arc,” which clocks in at 18:49 and again finds Blackshaw testing the piano waters. There are numerous exquisite moments, starting with the sparse piano alone in the wilderness, then unfurling into a majestic orchestral swell. There are some lulls in momentum, some transitions that stretch a little long, but it’s a very promising statement about what’s on the horizon for Blackshaw as he moves beyond the guitar. In the meantime, “Cross” is the sound of an artist who’s perfected his current craft in the here and now.
Adam McKibbin/TheRedAlert.com 7/14/09
It’s helpful to compare the two to gain some context: Afro-beat experimentalists NOMO and 12-string guitar composer James Blackshaw, though wildly different in sound, have captivated me in recent years for exactly the same reasons. Each already has a well-defined, recognizable aesthetic, one they tweak and hone just enough with every release to keep those interested pining for more. Each willingly flaunts its canonical influences (for NOMO: Fela Kuti, Mulatu Astatke, and the Congotronics noise-mongerers; for Blackshaw: Fahey and his Takoma disciples, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, etc.) but synthesizes and toys with those bedrock foundations enough to rightfully claim a bit of artistic ownership. Innovation is something to strive for, but there’s something to be said for artists who so deftly summate the strengths of others while adding a page or two of their own to the book of, er, Greatness-and do so on such a regular basis.
The Glass Bead Game, more than any of his other releases, demonstrates this principle, one that single-handedly sustains Blackshaw’s body of work. Last year’s Litany of Echoes (2008) found the auteur embracing more overt manifestations of minimalism in the piano-based pieces that book-ended the album, yet those efforts felt largely removed from the expansive guitar pieces that comprised the album’s core. Here, we immediately get “Cross,” a stunning exercise in repetition in which the guitarist’s playing is propped up by cello and violin (courtesy of Current 93 members John Contreras and Joolie Wood, respectively) and buoyed by the vocals of Lavinia Blackwell, a part that could easily have been one of the titular count in Music for 18 Musicians (1978). Each of the adornments is fully integrated into the whole; nothing is tacked on or extraneous. Though Blackshaw has gussied up his guitar in this manner since practically the beginning, here the results sound more natural than ever.
Elsewhere, Blackshaw displays his growing talents for composing and performing terribly affecting piano pieces. “Fix” is straightforward, predictable, and yes, really fucking poignant; positioned in the album’s center, it breaks up the other four pieces subtly but assuredly. “Arc,” on the other hand, is simply epic; despite past attempts and fondles at such a thing, it’s the first time Blackshaw’s been able to play the piano in exactly the same way that he plays the guitar. The piece begins with a few slow, repeated phrases before barreling into a dizzying bout of endurance for a good ten minutes: the sustain pedal, allowing Blackshaw to watch notes tumble and collapse upon one another-a trick he’d long mastered on the guitar-creates a tunnel-like effect, a cavernous sound slowly evolving as he introduces little nuances and ripples into his playing.
Up until now I may have made The Glass Bead Game out to be a subtle re-invention of Blackshaw’s sound, which is partly true, but that belies how slowly and carefully he’s molded his approach to get to this point. The guitar-only pieces (“Key” and “Bled”) actually find the artist in stasis, executing perfectly his basement guitar-virtuoso aesthetic, though with less stunning results than in the past (The Cloud of Unknowing  is still his high-watermark in acoustic showmanship). This is hardly a problem if the listener has the type of patience and appreciation for subtle micro-evolutions Blackshaw so clearly demonstrates and champions throughout his work. He’s on his way to building a grand monument to the craft he and so many before him have lovingly treated; he just needs to make sure each marble block is absolutely pristine before putting it down. Traviss Casady/CokeMachineGlow.com 7/7
On his seventh studio effort, the British-born guitarist James Blackshaw moves through the album’s five numbers with an astounding display of musical virtuosity. Moody, dark and sometimes even haunting, The Glass Bead Game is undertaker folk at its finest. “Cross” comes with a sense of elegant foreboding; “Fix” is a moving piano ballad that closes beautifully and the ten-minute “Bled” demonstrates Blackshaw’s speed and fingerpicking finesse. Rounding out the proceedings are the acoustic gothica of “Key” and the nearly twenty minute piano march of “Arc,” which is a focused and mesmeric composition, filled with an enervating sense of mournful magic. Astonishing. Alex Green/CaughtInTheCarousel.com July update