James Blackshaw – The Glass Bead Game

Young God (2009)

(Another Fact review!)

Blackshaw, though he looks young, must have been at this for decades. There is some flavour of crossroad meeting, or memo to Mephistopheles, at work on The Glass Bead Game, because it’s otherwise difficult to accept the quality of playing on this record. Blackshaw has taken time to get really, really good at his instrument. I’m sure you’ll have seen some news piece or other mentioning the fact he used to be in punk rock bands. But, phew, he grew out of that juvenile noise.

The knock-on effect of ostensibly growing up is running the risk of blandness. First song ‘Cross’ is a case in point. Lavish in its complex arrangement, a magnificently controlled wordless vocal pipes up that is at once beautiful and disconcertingly reminiscent of that Lloyds TSB ad. Fortunately, the musical whole is so well-constructed that such thoughts are kept far from your mind.

Three of the five (lengthy) songs on here are guitar-led, as you might imagine. They are, as you might also imagine, really rather good. You might, like I did, feel sceptical about such movements as the alleged folk renaissance. Especially if you first hear of a musician between stories about fallen MPs and white phosphorus attacks on Radio 4’s Today programme. But you lose yourself easily in the intricate tapestry of guitar, vocal, violin and cello on ‘Cross’ and ‘Bled’.

Less convincing is relatively brief piano piece ‘Fix’. It sounds rather like one of Richard James’ treated piano sketches on Drukqs, stretched out to nearly six minutes. It’s fair, and strings eventually flesh it out, but the mind too easily wanders during its duration. ‘Key’ is similar in length, but it sees Blackshaw return to the guitar. With the songs getting shorter, and the quality beginning to slightly dip, you may wonder whether that’s it for the album.

Thankfully, that’s not it, by a long shot. ‘Arc’ is the grand statement of the album, and is one of the grand musical statements of this year so far. Like ‘Bled’, ‘Arc’ features an introductory motif that eventually gives way to a largely unrelated song-body. Like ‘Bled’, it works wonders, but on an epic scale. ‘Fix’ was no warning for this stunning, piano-centred, piece. As it builds so subtly, you almost fail to realise the depth of the layers and drones locking in place, intertwining and undulating before your ears. It’s a hypnotic, 19-minute, rush. It’s like vomiting gold, rainbows and unicorns out of every orifice in your head. In a good way.

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