James Blackshaw’s “The Cloud of Unknowing” Thom Jurek Review

Still in his middle twenties at the time of this recording, British acoustic 12-string guitarist James Blackshaw has distinguished himself as an innovative and original voice in a very limited medium. Along with Glenn Jones, Jack Rose, and Sir Richard Bishop, Blackshaw is forging a new acoustic trail for the guitar. Comparisons between all of these guitarists are futile, as are attempts to report on their “influences.” Blackshaw in particular stands out for his use solely of a 12-string; his long elegant lines and incredibly detailed methods of fingerpicking; his meld of Eastern modes alongside pastoral Western harmonics; his historical sense of Celtic folk music; and his elegant, full bodied, but nearly fluid approach to both composition and improvisation — which are blended seamlessly in his pieces. The Cloud of Unknowing is his first recording readily available in the United States. Released by the venerable yet tiny Tompkins Square imprint (which is also working on reissuing his back catalog), this is a side of Blackshaw displayed only partially on his Celeste, Sunshrine, and O True Believers recordings. Using various tunings, Blackshaw seemingly enters the opening title track from the middle, spinning an airy narrative from a complex yet utterly accessible extrapolation of theme and variation. There are drones that actually provide a rhythmic counterpoint to his enveloping mist of ringing strings and climbing and falling scalar work. On “Running to the Ghost,” Blackshaw also plays glockenspiel, and is accompanied by violinist Fran Bury (who also guests on the set’s final cut, “Stained Glass Windows”). The opening rhythmic pattern established by his fingerpicking — especially on the low strings — is glissando-like in structure, and is given weight by the accompanying instruments. His bass strings move off indirectly from the shimmering harmonic interplay and become a series of counterpoint harmonies, offering melodic possibilities in the middle that are hinted at rather than openly stated.

The brief “Clouds Collapse” is a soundscape track that acts as the album’s hinge and breaks the listener’s concentration momentarily before his minor-key “The Mirror Speaks” reenters with a much more pronounced theme and architecture, where scales are improvised on a nearly country & western theme (with a Middle Eastern melody playing against and into the theme), but stretched to the breaking point. Think of “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” alongside an oud melody played by Hamza el Din. The album’s 15-plus-minute closer, “Stained Glass Windows,” opens so blissfully and sparely that it feels like it doesn’t fit the disc. Blackshaw’s meandering scalar work appears almost haphazardly inside a very loose and deceptively simple and seemingly random thematic structure. It picks up speed quickly, however, and gently and purposely becomes a full-blown 12-string bliss-out accented by a double rhythmic counterpoint played against a pair of melodies. One feels literally as if in the presence of the Divine. This feeling is simply ratcheted up for seven minutes or so before Bury’s violin, accented and textured by electronics, enters in full dissonant mode, creating a sense of the Fall. It’s chaotic, harsh, and utterly ruinous in a sense, until the realization that it is in this space of freedom and dislocation that you struggle to find your ground, and its intention is to show the flip side of the lyric order of Western music (think Ornette Coleman playing violin with sound effects blurring nearly every line except his pitch frequencies), which, inexplicably, takes the track abruptly out into the void, where the listener is left wondering breathlessly about what just transpired. The Cloud of Unknowing is Blackshaw’s most sophisticated and utterly engaging album yet, and offers American audiences a startling first listen to a musical visionary. Highly recommended.