James Blackshaw – ‘All Is Falling’ Album Review

When James Blackshaw first entered my radar screen it was because he had attached himself to Young God records, Michael Gira’s own record label, and even appeared with Micheal for various acoustic concerts. As a result, I had a vague idea about the man but not the music and after taking several weeks to absorb the complicated, delicate, beautiful ‘Glass bead game’ I concluded that while it was a stunning work it wasn’t for everyone. That same caution, to an extent, applies here on ‘all is falling’, not that James (or I for that matter) would have it any other way. James Blackshaw makes music that is largely genre-less. Free from expectations of ‘hits’ or commercial viability, James just does what he does best – play beautiful, neo-classical orientated music that is as different from anything else you are likely to hear as it is refreshing.

Stepping into confusing territory, ‘all is falling’ eschews conventional song titles for parts (eight in total) so that the music takes the form of one piece, albeit broken into tracks for the sake of convenience and not terrifying the ‘I pod’ generation. Part one is a gentle prelude, played on the piano, that takes the form of a single repetitive riff which swells in stature as the track develops until the listener is enveloped in sound before it dissipates, making way for the wistful, string-augmented part two which is both haunting and reflective but not depressing. Part three sees the complexity levels rise as James puts his extraordinary skills to good use on a piece that reverberates around the room and which has been so perfectly recorded that it feels like he’s playing sat next to you. It’s an immediate and intense track with folk elements introduced into the mix to good effect and the best thing to do is to close your eyes and be swept up by the sheer majesty of James’ compositional skills.

While some clear distinction can be made between earlier tracks, parts four and five sweep grandly into one another with no obvious break and the only sign of progression being the level of depth apparent in each track. Part five is a definite favourite as an undercurrent of menace seeps in underneath the superficial beauty and the track is by turns dark and mesmerising. Eerily hypnotic and possessed of an unassuming eclecticism, it’s a beautiful track, but then they all are. Part six is a short track that sees drums added to the mix while a dislocated voice counts the distressingly unconventional time signature for you lest you get lost a danger which is largely reserved for the twelve minute part seven – the album’s epic heart.

Much like the opening track, Part seven relies upon a simple, repetitive riff that is then built upon over the course of the song until it represents a monster grown tired of its restraints and ready to break free. As the track progresses and each layer is added so the listener is more drawn into the tracks carefully interwoven layers. Once again the track has a folky feel to it, although the music itself is most certainly not folk, or not in any traditional sense, rather it is James trying to make sense of all the bursts of noise and colour in his head, laying it bare on the canvas of this LP for all to hear. It’s a brave, bold, stunning track and it represents all that is good about this unique album. The final part sees James close the album on a reflective note, with a sustained yet gentle drone and the overall impression being that you’ve listened to one single, piece of glorious music rather than an album of discernible tracks. It is a credit to James that his work is both original and fascinating and, like all great works, the disc has much to offer on repeated listens thanks to the sheer intricacy of many of the tracks.

I’ve had a copy of ‘all is falling’ for almost a month now and I don’t claim to have fully absorbed it all yet. Certainly, while ‘the glass bead game’ was an understated masterpiece, this album exceeds it in almost every possible way with James’ astonishing skills shining through a piece of music that grabs you from the off. While this is still not something that will appeal to a mass audience, this is one of those perfect gems that you can treasure time and time again knowing that neither age nor fashion will dull its beauty. A stunning performance from an exquisite musician.

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