The introduction to “Part One” begins with a minimal piano line based around a repeating figure that slowly gather steam until a flurry of cluster notes descend on the keys like rain. These notes are played so quickly and with so much control it is hard to imagine a human possesses the dexterity for such a move. Then you realize who is behind the keys. James Blackshaw’s ninth album in four years (can you fathom that?) is marked by a distinct move away from the twelve-string virtuoso guitar work that brought him into prominence into the Tompkins Square guitar crowd and then into the general body of experimental music listeners. Pianos, violins, cellos, and percussion share top-billing with Blackshaw’s guitar on All is Falling. Without his characteristic instrument at his command for a majority of the album, Blackshaw’s creative process is transparent and written all over the slow building compositions that move from simple, minimalist chord progressions in dizzyingly complex, emotionally overwhelming crescendos.
The trance-inducing piano work that opens All is Falling works very much like the dense, finger-picked twelve-string work that defines 2007’s The Cloud of Unknowing. Both sound inhumanly technical and carefully metered. But this new James Blackshaw moves out of his role of guitar-savant and into the realm of a remarkable composer and band leader. Most of the prominent instruments that bookend All is Falling are not played by Blackshaw himself, in fact the strings placed in the center of compositions like “Part Three” and “Part Seven” arch over and often overshadow Blackshaw’s frenetic guitar picking. While showing his most instrumentally diverse side, (percussion plays a major role in these songs) his compositions never feel like they are slipping away or getting out of hand from Blackshaw’s compositional mastery. In fact, these tracks offer glimpses into Blackshaw’s thought process into writing songs that gradually build, accumulating more and more instruments, complex time signatures, and general, focused intensity as they snowball into massively huge and thought-out compositions.
For those who once saw Blackshaw as a second coming of John Fahey or Robbie Basho may bristle a bit against the seeming lack of the jaw-on-the-floor atonal complexity of albums like The Cloud of Unknowing or Celeste. The outright, thrill-me-know guitar work is woven naturally into the body of the compositions, never naked or alone but always just above, or at least standing beside the cello, violin, and percussion instruments. It is however, never dull or uninspiring. On that note, Blackshaw’s guitar playing seems to have dropped the folk tags so easily associated with his Tompkins Square Days. In fact “Part Seven’s” opening riff, if played much faster, with an avalanche of distortion piled on top of it, and put in front of a blast-beat it might pass as an Iced Earth riff. The fact that something akin to a rock riff would show up on a James Blackshaw album made me think of All of Falling in a new context. These compositions, with their slow crawl into a powerful climax follow a similar trajectory of a post-metal band like Isis or, better yet, Red Sparowes whose instrumental long players are more akin to classical music than anything metal. Perhaps we can think of Blackshaw in a similar light, an artist who when confronted with something as limiting as a genre, dismantles and parcels it out across several musical styles to create something all his own.
It is rumored that 2009’s The Glass Bead Game made Young God Records owner and former Swans front-man Michael Gira cry. With this sophomore effort on Young God it would be interesting to be in the same room when this was played for the first time. By far one of the most gorgeous albums of the year and a high mark in Blackshaw’s young career.