Review: James Blackshaw - The Cloud of Unknowing (2007)


jblackshaw_cloudartist: James Black­shaw
release: The Cloud of Unknow­ing
format: CD, LP
year of release: 2007
label: Tomp­kins Square
dur­a­tion: 42:42

detailed info: dis​cogs​.com

James Black­shaw is back, with a new album on a new label. The wait between O True Believ­ers and this one wasn’t very long, but worth it all the same. What we have here is, in my humble opin­ion, Blackshaw’s best work to date. For those who need an intro­duc­tion, Black­shaw is a young Eng­lish gui­tar player, and from the first notes of each of his releases it becomes very clear that this man is a huge tal­ent. The way he handles his 12-string is very impress­ive, if not awe-inspiring. In most of his com­pos­i­tions, he takes famil­iar and pleas­ant sound­ing tonal com­bin­a­tions from both west­ern and east­ern (raga) music, but he plays it in a unique and inim­it­able way.

The title track is a per­fect example of this. James really steps on the gas pedal, com­pared to some pas­sages from earlier albums, but the res­ult is incred­ible. The chords and melod­ies flow like a clear water­fall under his trade­mark fin­ger­pick­ing style. It’s often hard to believe he plays all this on one gui­tar track. For this album, how­ever, Black­shaw is not afraid to seek out new ter­rit­or­ies. “Run­ning to the Ghost”, my favour­ite track of the album, and by Black­shaw in total has sup­port by glock­en­spiel besides the high-speed (but not nervous!) gui­tar play­ing. Halfway we hear some­thing new, but oh so beau­ti­ful: the violin sounds of guest musi­cian Fran Bury. The per­fect touch for a track like this. And then, near the end of side A, James takes us back into that other area of his: exper­i­ment­a­tion. He never did shy away from an exper­i­ment here and there, and this album is no excep­tion. “Clouds Col­lapse” is a ghostly, sparse piece of exper­i­mental melody, played on (de-tuned?) cym­bala / lap harp.

The Mir­ror Speaks” may well be one of Blackshaw’s fast­est tracks to date, and it starts with a very thick and loud rumble - that turns out to be the start of James pick­ing his strings! Kind of a roller­coaster of a song, with some inter­est­ing and var­ied twists and turns in the melody. The album ends with the long “Stained Glass Win­dows”, another beau­ti­ful track, mostly com­par­able in style to the first track. Near the end, the won­der­ful sup­port of Bury’s violin joins in again, draw­ing the album to a beau­ti­ful close. How­ever, like the first side, side B ends in exper­i­ment­a­tion - this time Fran gets free rein in a haunt­ing piece of violin abuse that spans a couple of minutes, demon­strat­ing the seam­less blend of acous­tic bliss and melodic exper­i­ments that is Blackshaw’s own.

This is noth­ing short of a bril­liant album, and it shows that James Black­shaw isn’t done by far with devel­op­ing his art. He adds just a touch of dif­fer­ence to the musical blend to make this album stand out from his other work, mak­ing it famil­iar, yet ori­ginal. The Cloud of Unknow­ing is avail­able from Tomp­kins Square on CD and very afford­able vinyl, so if you are in any­way inter­ested in fine instru­mental acous­tic gui­tar play­ing or acous­tic exper­i­ments, this is what you should be get­ting. Right now.

Reviewed by O.S.

Track­list:

1. The Cloud of Unknow­ing (10:55)
2. Run­ning to the Ghost (6:16)
3. Clouds Col­lapse (3:56)

4. The Mir­ror Speaks (6:31)
5. Stained Glass Win­dows (15:04)

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