James Blackshaw – The Glass Bead Game

January 01, 1970





phenomenon James Blackshaw has long been known for conjuring luxuriant,
symphonic sounds out of his guitar. Indeed, even on pure solo guitar
recordings, like “River
of Heaven” from the first
Imaginational Anthem compilation, it is hard to believe that one person,
playing one instrument could be responsible for all that cascading, shimmering,
iridescent beauty. But however expressive, however versatile Blackshaw can make
his acoustic instrument, it is apparently not quite enough. Here in his eighth
full-length (and first for Michael Gira’s Young God imprint), he extends that
palette even further, adding guest vocals, violin, cello and flute to the
toolset – and even switching from guitar to piano for two tracks. It is bold
move, but it pays off. The Glass Bead Game is a dizzying achievement,
showcasing not just Blackshaw’s musical skills, but his vision and spiritual
depth as a composer.


The album
begins with its densest and most elaborately orchestrated piece, the long,
lovely “Cross.”  Here pastoral patterns of 12-string guitar cascade over
one another like running water in sunlight, the texture of the piece gradually
thickened with cello (that’s John Contreras from Current 93) and violin (Joolie
Wood, also a Current 93 alum). Round the middle, we begin to hear Lavinia
Blackwall’s vocals, looping in hypnotic counterpoints, blossoming in wordless
joy. It’s lush, sensual, disorienting and overwhelming. That the track just manages to skirt new age-y excess does not take away from its power to


cuts back to just his own guitar in two tracks. “Bled” is all measured
melancholy, little figures that flourish and fade away. “Key”, later on, is
more what you expect from Blackwell, rapid-picked flurries of sun-speckled
guitar notes, technically difficult, surely, yet played with a light-fingered,
light-hearted fleetness. Somewhat surprisingly, the guitar prodigy turns toward
the piano in two tracks. In “Fix” a simple, slow-paced pattern of three or four
chords repeats in meditative simplicity, as cello and violin weave around it.
“Arc”, the disc’s other long piece, is more anthemic and full of drama, a bit of
Copeland in its opening salvo. This last track is particularly good, perhaps,
after “Cross” the best on the album – and like “Cross” the most successful in
incorporating multiple textures. Near the middle of “Arc”, Blackwell shifts
from a strong, simple melody on the piano to lusher cascades of arpeggios
blurred together in a sustained mesh of overtones. It’s piano, but played just
like he plays the guitar, and with the same transcendent grace.


Standout Tracks: “Cross”, “Arc” JENNIFER KELLY





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