The guy’s name is James Blackshaw. And I had never heard of him.
He’s London-based, he’d been alive for less than 30 years and he plays acoustic 12-string guitar and piano.
The album that first fascinated me is The Glass Bead Game. I then found out that it is (at least) his eighth album. I’ve been with him ever since.
But I wouldn’t have cared if his other albums are terrible what I most care about is The Glass Bead Game.
It’s an instrumental set of five long songs.
Wait, come back…
The first tack is called Cross. Here the guitar circles and weaves and builds a dense pattern around essentially a folk framework. It is easy to see why names like Leo Kottke and John Fahey are routinely mentioned as touchstones. As the song dips and bobs and folds in and around itself a layering of wordless vocals lifts the tune to a celestial level.
I am not a religious person. More than 30 minutes in a church and the water starts to bubble; it knows I’m there! Outstaying my welcome…Anyway, this piece of music (and I’ve given you the option of a link above if you want to ignore my description and just hear it for yourself) had the same impact on me as when I first heard Handel’s Messiah. It hits on that deep level. A spiritual experience; you can feel so much of Blackshaw’s soul being laid on plate – and it’s there to take.
Second track, Bled features more guitar and it’s denser – picture Michael Hedges’ tone, but less floaty.
At exactly the point when you might think that five long tracks of regal 12-string guitar ringing out loud and proud might be too much, track three arrives.
Fix is a piano track – deeply cinematic – possibly the highlight of the album. But that’s a little like picking favourite children.
From there Key sees the return of the guitar (that link is a live except).
And to close there is the 18+ minutes of Arc. Another piano-driven piece of quietly contemplative work that recalls Leonard Cohen’s Tacoma Trailer (to give you a vaguely similar listening experience) or imagine if Neil Young were to release a solo instrumental piano album (think of piano versions of Mother Earth or some of the material from Freedom or Sleeps With Angels).
Roughly five minutes in to Arc – as the title suggests – Blackshaw begins to layer patterns, cascading, falling over one another. He does this with the 12-string also, hammering on, allowing notes to ring, pushing counter-melodies with and against each other.
The resulting album is – to my ears – a masterpiece. I thought that when I first listened to it. A month later it is the album I have listened to the most. And I am still finding something new in it each time. And I am still captivated by it.
I told someone, when looking for an easy description, that it was like an instrumental version of Roy Harper’s Stormcock. I was really referring to my feeling when I first heard Stormcock; the experience I had when being opened up to something that seemed to exist in its own space. Without care for being anchored to any particular genre, to any obvious context; I mean, sure, Stormcock could be called a folk album – and so could The Glass Bead Game, but that doesn’t mean that label has to be used against them also.
James Blackshaw’s The Glass Bead Game feels like an album you should want to share with friends – but also keep for yourself. I wanted to share it with you. And with sufficient links to tracks and to the album information you can choose to laugh at me for being wide of the mark. That’s fine. Go for it. It won’t change my opinion about this album.
I have already gifted it to three friends. And I imagine I will buy it again and again and give it to others.
So – I’m keen to know if you’ve heard it already? If you’ll take me up on this suggestion and give it a decent try? If you knew anything about James Blackshaw before; perhaps you have heard the other albums…he’s continued to release great material. This remains the sentimental favourite. Only going back further in time – to Ralph Towner’s Diary – provided a truly similar experience to the thrill and chill of The Glass Bead Game. But every time I revisit this album it blows my mind, transports me, too, to the time/s when I first heard it; that initial impact.