Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Music Review: James Blackshaw - All Is Falling

It was just over a year ago that I sort of backhandedly praised James Blackshaw’s Young God debut, The Glass Bead Game, for playing out more or less as expected. I spoke of diminishing returns and transitional works in progress, while at the same time walking away in a manner that I can only mundanely describe as appeased. You see, the 29 year-old guitar prodigy, despite possessing one of the most distinctive, unique and instantly recognizable approaches to classically-tinged, acoustic-based guitar composition, has nevertheless stretched his methods about as far as they can go without a complete aesthetic overhaul. But though he seems content to stay within this chosen world of minimalist guitar exposition, there have been small steps toward broader horizons. The unadorned piano exercises of 2008s Litany of Echoes gave way to headier experiments with drone and the occasional vocal contribution on Glass Bead, while still staying true to a well established acoustic foundation. On his ninth and latest album, All Is Falling, Blackshaw finally takes his first full step out of his comfort zone, adopting a 12-string electric as his primary compositional tool, while honing his tentative flirtations with piano and a small string ensemble.

If my description has prepared you for something sonically out of step with Blackshaw’s prior work, wait just a minute. While All Is Falling is unique from a tonal standpoint, Blackshaw’s compositional methods have translated basically intact. He claims to not having played the electric guitar in nearly a decade, which is certainly evidenced in the album’s more elemental progressions, but the results are still uniquely his own. There’s just no mistaking his sound as this point, hamstringing my praise into that dreaded grey continuum pitting refinement versus progression. Which is to say that at various points All Is Falling is a little of both, while at all times managing to reside as a comparable piece with the eight documents which have preceded it. Stating that I do ultimately prefer this album to Glass Bead, however, is not meant as a backhanded recommendation. All Is Falling is a stronger, more consistent and more effortlessly enjoyable album than its predecessor. It also crucially doesn’t feel like a transitional album. If anything, it feels like Blackshaw has now reached a plateau where he may very well be in line to parlay his talents into less confining projects (I’d kill to see him collaborate in a group similar to Rangda for example).

But as far as reaching the logical conclusion to one’s own conceptual journey, Blackshaw has certainly arrived at a pleasing destination with All Is Falling, an arcing 8-movement song cycle which utilizes just about every weapon in the man’s arsenal. Bookended by an interlocking piano reverie and a droning denouement, All Is Falling’s six central pieces segue unimpeded for a little bit north of half an hour, thus negating whatever criticism there is to lobby at a few less engaging stretches. It is interesting to note, however, how Blackshaw augments his more linear, less cascading electric lines with a variety of string and wind instruments. These accouterments aren’t simply used as counterpoint, though they do ably fulfill that task, but also as harmonic sources of their own. In fact, many of the record’s most memorable moments are facilitated by these very provisions. The record’s one true individual standout comes at its climax, with the 12-minute “Part 7”, which commences with a clean, ringing five-note guitar phrase before each additional orchestral element is slowly arrayed to enveloping effect. As wonderful as this and many other portions of the record are, however, what’s most enticing about All Is Falling is just how effortlessly composed it all plays out. With nowhere obvious left to go, Blackshaw has now, for the first time in a few years, got me anticipating his next move. [75/100] [Published 09.09.10]

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