For a while, categorising James Blackshaw did not pose much of a challenge. An outstanding 12-string guitarist in the lineage of the Takoma school, his mesmerising circular patterns were reminiscent of Robbie Basho or John Fahey. These reference points are now proving inadequate as Blackshaw continues to diversify. On Litany Of Echoes and The Glass Bead Game, Blackshaw occasionally veered away from the guitar altogether, performing on the piano in a less proficient but no less haunting style. His collaboration with the Dutch lute player Josef Van Wissem suggested an interest in baroque instruments and forms.
With All Is Falling, comfortably his most orchestrated work so far, Blackshaw adopts an even more structured and compositional approach. His music is no longer defined by the way in which he develops themes on the guitar (his supreme technical facility allowing him to layer ideas without recourse to overdubs), but how he arranges for an ensemble. Eschewing track titles in favour of numbering the pieces as Parts 1 through to 8, it’s immediately clear that each section is a fragment of a larger work. Although Blackshaw again begins on piano and, more surprisingly, subsequently switches to playing an electric guitar for the first time, the music seems to flow seamlessly, with Blackshaw’s characteristic ebb and flow approach to arrangement superbly demonstrated on a grander scale.
Blackshaw’s interest in repetition and layering remains a dominant feature. Often, looped figures provide an anchor over which Blackshaw superimposes other phrases and ideas. Some of these work in tandem with the original line, others provide opposition and tension. This results in intricate webs that seem carefully mapped and designed. Part 1 begins with a simple piano line, over which Blackshaw gradually adds more and more elements. The end result is a coruscating, shimmering work of beauty. Part 4 perhaps betrays the influence of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass or Terry Riley, with its insistent string drones and overlapping rhythms.
The use of an electric 12 string guitar has facilitated some subtle shifts in Blackshaw’s playing style. In Part 2, the pace is slower and the phrasing more spacious. He no longer seems concerned with dazzling the listener with a barrage of notes. Briefly, the music is reminiscent of the elegant simplicity of Low or the Dirty Three. This gentle beginning makes for a dramatic shift in mood just over a minute from the end, when the pace suddenly doubles. It’s a provocative moment that breaks Blackshaw’s hypnotic sway and offers a timely reminder of his remarkable ability on his main instrument.
Although All Is Falling sustains a consistent mood and feeling, the music becomes noticeably more complex in its latter stages. The shifting time signatures of Part 6 are counted out by detached, emotionless voices, the one moment where the sense of mystery in Blackshaw’s systems is casually undermined. The penultimate Part 7 feels like a natural climax – an intricate chamber piece that brings in percussion and ends with very contemporary, anguished tumbles and falls from the string section. It’s a peculiar but fascinating combination of grace and danger.
Blackshaw is of course too challenging and unpredictable an artist to conclude at a natural point of resolution. Instead, All Is Falling ends with electronically manipulated drones and sounds, in a manner more reminiscent of Stars Of The Lid or Oneohtrix Point Never than any of the Takoma guitarists. It’s a wonderful curveball with which to end this involving and intelligent work. It also suggests that Blackshaw has many more tricks left up his sleeve.