The Glass Bead Game CD - Young God
Despite the just palpably awkward sound of this recording - and it's nothing I can quite name, a hint of haziness (possibly intentional) in the mix of those glorious multi-tracked guitars - The Glass Bead Game, the most recent recording from Brit 12-string phenomenon James Blackshaw, is an impressive outing from this prolific musician. Let's face it, acoustic guitar players can be awfully chancy listens, varying from aloof intellectual showmen intent on a soulless display of technical prowess to anachronistic seekers of some hallowed and purist past. Such folk nearly always miss the mark by insistently propagating a rote and limited palette of tradition and proficiency. And, of course, the common sound of the acoustic guitar, coupled to the narcissistic isolation of "serious instrumental musicians," all too frequently dooms their efforts to be little heard and less appreciated. But, in his brief career to date, Blackshaw has deftly sidestepped such pitfalls and produced recordings that touch on the past without being enslaved by it.
His guitar work, blending as it does Eastern and Western concerns, recalls any number of Takoma masters, as well as British forebears such as Bert Jansch. But Blackshaw sounds out current trends, too. He most certainly is acquainted with the resurgent acid-folk guitarists. But the man's approach is singular, and his recordings have been quite simply beautiful. The five pieces here are all that, and while The Glass Bead Game doesn't really break any new ground, it does show that Blackshaw continues to be both restless and inventive in his music. The opening cut, "Cross," is a mesmerizing cloud of over-dubbed 12 strings, repeating patterns and delicate harmonies which rise from the incestuous mingling of tone and overtone. All its miraculous chiming is layered over some gorgeous droning and cello work. Then, polishing everything, as though enough sheen were not already present, is the playfully dancing and unformed vocal work of Lavinia Blackwell. If you cannot become emotionally transfixed by "Cross," I fear there is little hope for you. "Bled," the ensuing track, calls on much less support for Blackshaw's guitars. It opens with a simple, forlorn statement that seems to play on the riff from Mono's "Mere Your Pathetique Light." Blackwell then takes more than nine minutes in building an improvisation around it before returning to ground. There are two piano-based pieces, and while very much in the vein of the piano work on last year's Litany of Echoes, these improve substantially on it. "Fix" is something of a mid-record palette cleanser, a gentle intersection of the sparseness of the early 20th Century avant ambient explorations of Erik Satie (Blackshaw's piano) and late Romantic period impressionism, voiced through Joolie Wood's violin and John Contreras' cello. Closer "Arc" lazily unfolds its opening theme, a majestic sustained piano piece that serves to sum the disc. Blackshaw then embarks on an 18-plus minute journey through the type of circular and repeated 'improvisational' structures which he routinely gives to his guitars, the instruments sounding remarkably similar in texture.
By Michael Meade