Review of James Blackshaw's "The Cloud of Unknowing" - Tompkin Square Records
- Kevin Link

When most people think of twelve-string guitar music they hear twanging, bottle-neck bended chords accompanied by a husky, Southern croon, but James Blackshaw is out to change that. The twenty-six-year-old fingerstyle guitar prodigy from Hastings, England is more Terry Riley than Lead Belly. Though he neither writes nor reads music, he considers himself a composer. It only takes one listen to understand why.

Blackshaw crafts shimmering, resonant overtures using only a dreadnought-bodied twelve-string guitar and a flurry of intricate finger-picking. Irregular tunings allow complex chords to emerge from simple but deft grips of his left hand. Blackshaw’s right hand is claw-like; his nails are grown out half an inch to simulate five picks plucking at once. During performances he sometimes stops in between songs and sheepishly asks, “Ever seen a full-grown Brit file his nails?” before going at them with an Emory board. His rapid, multi-note attack is amplified by the guitar’s sympathetic strings, each tuned to the same note or an octave below its thicker companion string, which add volume and depth with each strike. The effect is similar to minimalist composer Charlemagne Palestine’s roaming piano pieces where the sustain pedal is constantly pressed, allowing notes to linger and twist against one another.

Blackshaw is the newest and most talented disciple of the “Takoma School,” an approach to guitar championed by the now obscured legends John Fahey and Robbie Basho. The movement, named after Fahey’s label, Takoma Records, sought to turn the guitar into a solo concert instrument. Blackshaw’s most recent album, The Cloud of Unknowing, might be just that. While Basho and Fahey pioneered many of Blackshaw’s tricks, the aforementioned open tunings and finger-picking style, neither artist had the patience or austerity his pieces express.

The title track of Unknowing starts with a few modest ghost notes and strums then sets along a simple but elegant phrase that is repeated and slowly evolved. The song continues this pattern of subtle change until the sound has transformed into vibrant loop that swells to engulf the environment in which it’s played. On the “The Mirror Speaks” Blackshaw speeds through a complicated but rewarding melody that recalls the rapid licks of six-string virtuoso Jack Rose more than the abstract brilliance of the rest of the album. In the album’s final track, “Stained Glass Windows,” Blackshaw meanders before launching into a dramatic, glistening sustains. Viola joins the guitar in the second half, following Blackshaw higher and higher until the song dissolves into an airy dissonance at the ten-minute mark. The only track on the album that sags is “Clouds Collapse,” a song in which radio static and bells are heard along with the occasional metallic clink of strings plucked at the high-tension point between the nut and tuners of the guitar. This sound experiment is an attempt at a cleansing interlude but creates the least inspired four minutes of the album.

Despite containing only five tracks The Cloud of Unknowing proves to be a mature and uplifting work. With seven albums under his belt at the tender age of twenty-six, James Blackshaw looks primed to build a legacy. 

Image by James Blackshaw,