James Blackshaw: The Cloud of Unknowing

James Blackshaw
The Cloud of Unknowing
Tompkins Square

On last year's Imaginational Anthem Volume Two, a compilation of guitarists both past and present, then 24-year-old U.K. guitarist James Blackshaw burst out of the gates with a 12-string composition titled "River of Heaven," which felt like an invigorating dip in that body of water. On that track and others in his young discography, Blackshaw evoked the holy trinity of the steel-string tradition: the rigorous compositional method of John Fahey, the tumultuous instrumental blends of Sandy Bull, and the rapturous flurries of Robbie Basho (meaning he finds himself in the company of current practitioners like Jack Rose and Richard Bishop).

While at times Blackshaw showed perhaps too much devotion to the altar of his forefathers, for his fourth full-length, The Cloud of Unknowing, he takes the aforementioned folk and melds its string work with Eastern modes and his own Celtic folk heritage, creating his most focused effort yet.

Rather than rest solely on his astounding finger-picking prowess, Blackshaw is unafraid to garland his guitar. On the 12-string rumination of "Running to the Ghost," he adds a glockenspiel, as well as the violin of Fran Bury. On "Clouds Collapse," he switches to the exotic strings of a cymbala, but sullies its pristine Oriental tones with scabrous feedback.

Which isn't to suggest that he occludes his talents—"The Mirror Speaks" features the fury of his finger work, while the gorgeous "Stained Glass Windows" unfurls for 10 minutes, before Bury's violin returns to cloak Blackshaw in a cloud. —Andy Beta


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