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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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David Grubbs

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Review of the Day

AUTECHRE, "PEEL SESSION 2"
Ae trainspotters around the world are aware that it's been some time since new material has surfaced from Sean Booth and Rob Brown. In mid-1999 they released the difficult, confusing "EP7," which left quite a few people nonplused, others either irritated or delighted. Consequently, rabid Autechre fans (such as myself) are very curious about this new release: a second set of Peel Sessions to complement the first set recorded in 1995.
Describing the way Autechre sounds hasn't been easy since their mind-blowing 1995 release, "Tri Repetae." As far as anyone can figure, the closest Autechre get to occupying a genre is probably electro or detroit techno. But Autechre have a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks when it comes to sonic manipulation: blender-style waves of distortion, sliced-and-diced vocal gibberish, bursts of deafening static, too-fast spidery percussion, low-pitched hums and thumps — and occasional delicate, lucid-dreaming melodies made from synths or strings.
There's one of these right at the start of the 9-minute "Gelk," the first of four tracks on "Peel Sessions 2." Accompanied by a tentative tapping, it grips you by the hair and pulls you all the way down the scale into a pair of earth-shaking bass tones, then repeats itself, and after a few seconds of this everything starts echoing in the most interesting way. It's classic Autechre, straight off of "Chiastic Slide" or "LP5" — but then, three minutes in, the song shifts without a hitch into what sounds like a lunatic plucking at a detuned grand piano, those thick hums stuttering and twisting as the pace slows, does a pirouette, and turns itself into a blunted breakbeat. At the seven minute mark, the beat disappears, gongs ringing as a totally different melody is eked from the high strings.
Irritatingly, this masterpiece is followed up by "Bifil," a juddering, thumping juggernaut of a song improved only by the eventual inclusion of an alien whimpering and babbling behind all the noise. Hit fast forward and save yourself the mental effort of trying to make sense of it. Next comes "Gaekwad," which demonstrates Autechre's unique ability to fashion a groove out of the sound of a bag of marbles dumped out onto a glass tabletop. Synthetic chimes and bells ring in the background while the beats skitter all over the place, speeding up and slowing down, growing louder and softer at random. The track gets a creepy edge as warped samples of dogs barking and laughter filter in towards the end. Lastly there's "19 Headaches," another bit of unfathomable, or perhaps improvisational ("Quick! We need another track to round out the set!") Autechre jitteriness. Lots of finger-walking up and down keyboards and weird, shuffling percussion, completely bizarre and almost unlistenable.
For folks who already like the duo, this bargain-priced EP is worth it just for "Gelk" — fanatics on the other hand would probably something more from the other tracks as well. Those new to Autechre, "LP5" and the insane masterpiece that is "Tri Repetae" are waiting for you — buy one of them instead and save yourself the trouble of sitting through the filler.

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