Categorizing artists by genre can sometimes be a dubious project. Much in the way that visual arts can bleed from sculpture to photography to video to installation to painting to performance, music can often resist clean distinctions of categorization. While admittedly, some performers happily stay within their chosen genres, James Blackshaw is not one of those. Known primarily as a guitarist and looped into the “freak folk” label a few years back, Blackshaw never quite fit into easy descriptors. Picking up where the late great John Fahey left off, Blackshaw’s intricate guitar playing explores the American blues and folk that Fahey and Jack Rose loved, while also introducing a statelier, refined take. While Fahey and Rose often veered towards what can be called an “American primitive” sound (i.e. early blues and folk), Blackshaw’s music sounds less ragged or raw and embraced an intense complexity.
Blackshaw is primarily known as an accomplished guitarist – deftly strumming, plucking, picking with astonishing skill – yet on his latest effort, All Is Falling, he proves his mettle as a pianist. The result is a record that may be jarring at first for some fans. The greatest pleasure in listening to Blackshaw’s music was his sublimely intellectual mastery of the guitar. He weaves his compositions around genres, blurring lines between folk, minimalism, classical, and experimentalism, yet on All Is Falling, it sounds as though his songs are best brought out by his guitar playing. That is not to say this album is not another interesting, pleasurable listen. On the contrary, it’s rather fascinating to hear the difference between Blackshaw compositions for the piano and for the guitar.
All Is Falling is really a single extended eight-part piece. It begins with a quiet, gradual build, ultimately giving way to a crescendo. While giving nods to Philip Glass’ 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, the piano-based opening track is not entirely unique. Rather it pales in comparison to the far more interesting “Part 2,” which also includes a gradual build but Blackshaw’s guitar work, coupled with a simple yet aching string arrangement gives the song more levity and richer tones that the opening track. While earlier parts mine minimalist compositions and end up toeing the line between homage and rehash, the later parts are far more interesting including touches of Indian music and Steve Reich. Blackshaw’s fondness for layering takes exquisite shape in “Part 6,” including electric guitar, percussions, xylophone and a female voice counting. The combination might not sound any more advanced than a Slint or Godspeed You! Black Emperor song, but its still wonderfully arranged and has a rich vibrancy to it. Later tracks disorient rather than clarify making All Is Falling a more interesting, if not rigorous listen. The texture Blackshaw creates is exciting and it leaves you wanting more. All Is Falling is a fine record – while I would be hesitant to use it as an introduction for Blackshaw novices – it’s still fascinating to see his trajectory as a composer here.
John Fahey – The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death
Jack Rose – Raag Manifestoes
Six Organs of Admittance – Dark Noontide