The Glass Bead Game
(05.2009, Young God)
RIYL = Jack Rose, Steve Reich, Glenn Jones
Last year James Blackshaw released Litany of Echoes, an album which saw the UK’s premier guitar genius moving away from the John Fahey comparisons and towards a more minimalist, compositional arena that harkened Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The progression was a dynamic one to say the least, but certainly just a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Prior to this most recent album which I'm reviewing, The Cloud of Unknowing was far and away my favourite album. Just preceeding Litany of Echoes, The Cloud of Unknowing was certainly Blackshaw’s most focused and beautiful album, displaying what I thought then was the pinnacle instrumental guitar. Well, it only fits that Blackshaw be the one to prove me wrong. Somehow (surely by tapping into the long history of the UK’s ties to magic) Mr. Blackshaw has combined his newfound compositional fortitude as developed with Litany of Echoes and infused it with the placid beauty he had been developing for years in The Cloud of Unknowning. The result is by and large Blackshaw’s most incredible album to date; a pristine mark not only in the realm of contemporary instrumental guitar, but in the field of music as whole, regardless of generation or genre. I’ve been browsing through the list of albums that I’ve listened to this year and last year and I can’t find anything that comes close to the sweeping beauty of The Glass Bead Game. It’s that good. Blackshaw’s guitar work has never felt stronger or more assured than on this release. His flurry of guitar plucking simply melds together like some granular drone that pulses melodically with every subtle shift in key. Previous Blackshaw albums have held one or two gems amongst their tracklisting or, if they only held longer compositions, one or two moments that jumped out and really knocked your socks off. On The Glass Bead Game, every track is as beautiful and breath taking as the last. Blackshaw’s measured use of accompanying strings and piano instrumentation are placed perfectly and serve only to improve Blackshaw’s momentum. In fact, Blackshaw's piano work has become the focus of two of the five tracks on The Glass Bead Game and succeed in a way I would have never expected. The album is just pitch perfect. There isn’t a missed note amongst the literal thousands of notes that fill the album. From what I understand, The Glass Bead Game even brought Young God label creator and leader Angels of Light, Michael Gira to tears. Considering his musical background, that probably isn’t something that happens everyday. The Glass Bead Game is a career definer. When you apply that statement to James Blackshaw, someone who has already quite a few marvelous albums under his belt, the sentiment is even more resonant. Unmissable.