Rating: 8 / Format: CD/LP / Label: Young God

London 12-string guitarist and pianist James Blacksaw looks young, but between his solo work and contributions to groups like Brethren of the Free Spirit, he’s got over fifteen albums behind him. I’m sure you’ll have seen some news piece or other mentioning the fact he used to be in punk rock bands, but he grew out of that, and took a lot of time getting really, really good at his instrument. Of course, the knock-on effect of growing up is running the risk of blandness, and ‘Cross’, the first song on Blackshaw’s new album for Michael Gira’s Young God label, The Glass Bead Game, 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. 

It’s easy to feel sceptical about this alleged folk renaissance, especially when you first hear of a musician on Radio 4’s Today programme between stories about fallen MPs and white phosphorus attacks. But then you lose yourself in the intricate tapestry of guitar, vocal, violin and cello on the lengthy ‘Cross’ and ‘Bled’ and you’re sold. Less convincing is the piano-led ‘Fix’, which sounds 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 there’s not enough to stop your mind from wandering. ‘Key’ is similar in length but guitar-based, and with the songs getting shorter and the quality beginning to dip, you start to wonder whether that’s it for the album. 

Thankfully it’s not. Closing track ‘Arc’ is The Glass Bead Game‘s grand statement, which like ‘Bled’, features an introductory motif that eventually gives way to a largely unrelated song. But it’s better than ‘Bled’, building so subtly that 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 18-minute rush that’s like vomiting gold, rainbows and unicorns out of every orifice in your head (in a good way), and it’s one of the greatest songs made so far this year.

Robin Jahdi

James Blackshaw myspace



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