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James Blackshaw - The Glass Bead Game

The Glass Bead Game

James Blackshaw

Young Gods Records - YG40

Available after May 26, 2009 from

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker

The title to this CD, of course, is taken from the Hermann Hesse novel of the same name, and, if you've ever read Hesse, then you know you're in for a dense and engrossing experience. James Blackshaw has already been favorably received by the NY Times and Rolling Stone as heading up a new revivalist culture. The Times has compared his compositions to Terry Riley, Eric Satie, and Steve Reich…but then, leave it to the tin ears in that faux Left rag to get it wrong. Michael Gira of the Young God label (on which this disc appears) is far more accurate when he cites John Fahey and Robbie Basho, though I'd even more insistently reference John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. And where the Times points to Riley and Reich, what they should be alluding to is Philip Glass, but then those ink-stained tabloid clowns wouldn't know a riff from arugula unless Rupert Murdoch told them what was what—and, of course, that hegemonist bastard'd have it completely wrong too.

Blackshaw mainly plays a 12-string but also piano, and his acumen is not in flash or any true gambit for instrumental godhood really but rather to accomplish a mission, a dedication to transform the listener's ideas about what music should do and be. In that, then, he's very very close to what another composer has labored at in obscurity, a gent the Stone and Times wouldn't have a clue about: Wim Mertens. Yes, that Wim Mertens, the European film-maker. Like Blackshaw, his music (though some of his catalogue is outside what I'm now speaking of) is almost religious, a matter of spirit and matter transcending one another, and damn near unknown on these shores…not all that celebrated back on the old continent either. However, where Mertens tends to spareness, this gent is weighty and metemphatic while ascending into the skies.

Mostly this CD is Blackshaw himself, though he's joined by John Contreras on cello and Lavinia Blackwall on heavenly vocals, the element most clearly reflecting Glass. Gira points to the 19-minute Arc as the pivotal cut on The Glass Bead Game, and I quite agree. It's a swirling, cloudy, shimmering gauze of non-stop playing that weaves a tapestry pulling the listener into its spectral narrative. This is somewhat the kind of thing Glenn Branca tried doing in his own hamfisted approach but fucked up miserably on (though I'll grant the effort has its dim merits). Blackshaw completely aces him without an ounce of rock and roll crutching or NYC "avant-grade" posturing, taking his time (I've noted the song lengths below) to craft and texture.

In some ways, and Cross shows this, the guy's doing what Laraaji tried on hammer dulcimer and Deuter attempted in various manners, succeeding to questionable degrees. The Glass Bead Game is going to force those cats to reconsider their points of attack. It's a progressive menagerie of creative approaches bridging the arcane with a new cosmology ringing old images and new voices.

Track List:

  • Cross (8:38)
  • Bled (10:26)
  • Fix (5:39)
  • Key (6:03)
  • Arc (18:49)
All songs written by James Blackshaw.

Edited by: David N. Pyles


Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

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