James Blackshaw: All is Falling
Young God

All Is Falling is James Blackshaw's follow-up to last year's triumphant The Glass Bead Game and his second full-length outing on Michael Gira's Young God imprint following an impressive string of albums on Tompkins Square (2007's The Cloud of Unknowing, 2008's Litany of Echoes) and Kning Disk (2006's Waking Into Sleep). The new release documents the latest step in Blackshaw's ongoing metamorphosis from 12-string virtuoso to serious composer, but fans hoping for generous displays of his twelve-string dazzle might come away a little bit disappointedóAll Is Falling is clearly more a composer's than player's album. Blackshaw distances himself even more from his past work by eschewing acoustic guitar altogether, opting instead for a 12-string electric that he supplements with his own glockenspiel and piano, as well as the violin and woodwinds of Charlotte Glasson, violin of Fran Bury, and cello of Daniel Madav.

Blackshaw distills All Is Falling's melancholy romanticism into eight untitled parts, with the framing parts acting as prelude and postlude respectively. The influence of classical minimalism is evident in any number of passages: the strings' rising melodic line in the second part suggests a Glass influence; in part three, the keening strings and guitar blend into a pulsating mass reminiscent of a prototypical Reich ensemble, while the fourth includes underlying chord progressions that likewise evoke Reich's compositional voice. In general, the recording is closer in spirit to a formal orchestral suite than separate unrelated pieces.

That the album isn't a set of guitar solos is signified by the opening part's piano focus. The subsequent part weaves Blackshaw's delicate electric guitar lines and the other musicians' strings into courtly waltz balladry, eventually culminating in part seven's intricate blend of sensual melodic patterns, which are punctuated by the instruments' plummeting wails during the part's apex. In part four, glockenspiel tinkles add contrast to rough-hewn electric guitar playing, and in six Blackshaw and Bury count time amidst percussion flourishes. The sparkling guitar playing during the third part comes closest to spotlighting Blackshaw's picking technique, while the concluding eighth pursues an entirely different guitar approach with eight minutes of lunar dronescaping generated by feedback shudder.

Though it's clearly a quality release of genuine craft that merits one's attention (and is admirably concise at forty-five minutes), All Is Falling doesn't impress as much as The Glass Bead Game. The new release is less compelling on compositional grounds, for one, and the execution tends to be more well-mannered than impassioned; at times Blackshaw sounds constrained by the meticulously composed settings, and one longs to hear him break free and indulge his improvisatory side, even if for just a minute or two. In fact, witnessing him efface the soloing side of himself to such a degree might be the work's most regrettable aspect. One thus imagines an audience attending a live performance applauding politely, rather than ecstatically, at the work's end.

September 2010