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James Blackshaw, "The Glass Bead Game"

James Blackshaw has released a number of introspective and genre-defying records since his debut on Digitalis Recordings. He has, however, saved his best work for his debut on Young God. With a couple of familiar Current 93 faces behind it, The Glass Bead Game exhibits Blackshaw's experimental preferences, but also showcases his strength as an emotive and able songwriter.

 

Young God

James Blackshaw

Why Blackshaw named his album after a Herman Hesse novel is anyone's guess. Strong religious and romantic allusions aside, Blackshaw's music is simply and strikingly hypnotic. Its mantra-like quality is perhaps the only qualification required to share a name with Hesse's meditation on the intellectual and mystical. But, this hypnotic color is something every Blackshaw record has featured; his love for the likes of Terry Riley and Erik Satie is not hard to discern and his guitar-playing style lends itself to adjectives like "rolling" and "kaleidoscopic." He has flirted with American folk music and toed the line between classical and modern guitar performances. At a young age he has explored more musical territory than many bands do over the course of an entire career. What differentiates this album from his previous efforts is the quality of the voices added to the arrangements. Accompanying him throughout are Joolie Wood, John Contreras, and Lavinia Blackwall. Flutes, clarinets, violins, pianos, and a stellar vocal performance all support and deepen Blackshaw's already sophisticated and intense approach to composition and performance. It's as if this is the band he has always wanted with him. Together with their talents, Blackshaw sounds more spectral and colorful than ever.

"Cross," the opening song, immediately communicates that Blackshaw and company are out to impress. With all pistons firing, Blackshaw paints a dramatic, but meditative melodic picture with his guitar. His strings are seemingly caught in a never-ending upward movement, each note intent on elevating the song to a higher and more introspective level. In the background, violins and cellos radiate a steady current of calm hums and ghostly utterances. Then, with just a brief pause, the band begins to weave their disparate melodic and harmonic patterns together, further enrichening the song's lively character. Each member bends their instrument, wringing from it more emotion than was present the moment before. This pattern continues until Lavinia Blackwall adds her voice to the mix. Wordlessly, she accentuates the song's beauty with eruptions of melody and effortless soul. Her voice seems to steam off of the music, occuring as a natural result of all the activity already churning beneath it. It's a stunning way to start a record and, after hearing it for the first time, I was uncertain that anything could live up to it. Smartly, Blackshaw goes into deep meditation with both "Bled" and "Fix." His nimble fingers create a ton of sound in both cases, but both songs are less showy than "Cross" and both find Blackshaw focusing on simple and direct arrangements. The latter is a brief and lovely piano-based song fleshed out by understated and cinematic string accompaniments. "Key" bridges the gap between all the previous songs and the concluding "Arc," which is as epic as anything Blackshaw has attempted before. It's moderate pace and gentle dynamics pave the way for the epic conclusion that follows.

"Arc" begins as though it were meant to be played at a funeral. Although the tones pulled from the piano are largely major and bright, they eminate an evocative quietude that only remembrance and yearning can accompany. After a short time Blackshaw's piano erupts into glissandi, as though an epiphany hit him in mid-song. As the piano fluctuates between high and low notes, the song and all of its parts develop a crystalline texture. Each of the instruments begin to blend into one another. "Arc" eventually becomes a mass of glowing sound with different elements peaking their heads above the cascade of music that's been created. The song completely destroys all sense of time and place. Instruments bleed into one another and become disassociated from their source. Whenever a particular sound rises above the others, whether its being made by a voice, an instrument, or a combination thereof can be difficult to determine. Played at loud volumes, it's an absolutely transfixing and ecstatic piece of music capable of procuring an emotional response from the listener. After I heard it for the first time, I found myself with my jaw agape and my breath left short. Something very magical happened when these musicians came together. I can only hope it won't be the last time we see Blackshaw collaborating in such a fashion. It's hard not to talk in a superlative manner about this record; it is majestic and deserving of more accolades and praise than I can possibly write.

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Tara Jane O'Neil

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Review of the Day

"No Watches, No Maps"
While the Fat Cat people boast about their committment to introducing fresh new artists, they've played the game relatively safe for their entire existence. A successful record label has to establish themselves pretty much before they can make bold moves like this one, releasing a CD comprised entirely of demos received by the label from complete unknowns. Fat Cat established themselves by releasing an assortment of buzzworthy 12" split singles, sneaking in a relatively unknown act on one side with an established act on the other side. In sales it's called the "foot in the door technique" — now that we've got your attention, try this! The label's intentions are well and this technique sure paid off.
Conceived over two years ago, this collection gathers 74 minutes of people you most likely have never heard of, many of which will probably not surface again. While Fat Cat have pointed out that they love all of these songs, limitations of the label have only allowed them time, budget and manpower to do full releases of a couple, two of which Com.A and Duplo Remote have tracks appearing here. The collection is surprisingly impressive, starting off with the brief abrasive noise of QT?, continuing on with glitch electronica Autechre worshipping sound of Phluidbox, the sci-fi death theme sounds from Jetone and pentatonic Asian taste of Zooey. By the time it reaches the slick production of the instrumental Fridge-ish jam, Ukiyo-E's "Val Doonican," the grand scope of the collection is shifted, transforming it from a collection of random electronics to something more. At this point, the compilation of unknowns begins to strangely mirror a well-constructed soundtrack or an 80s-era cassette-only comp. Changes continue when the pounding abrasive head nodding track from Moneyshot bursts in, a melancholy piano piece from Beans arrives a few tracks later, followed by more electronic and organic contributions including the gorgeous low-tempo submission from Cytokine.
While each of the 19 songs on here are quality work, it's easy to tell that all of these artists are still in the infancy of their careers, with much more to learn about originality, composition and production. Much like releases like the "Rising from the Red Sand" comps for example, I'm predicting this disc will become one of those collectable references on discographies popping up years from now. On the horizon for the label is a section on their website with exchanges of music like this and hopefully more collections.

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