Quite some time after it was released, I finally picked up O True Believers by James Blackshaw based on the recommendation of readers of this site. What I found was a mature work that seemed much more steady than one would expect from a young artist, with graceful instrumentation giving ways to more experimental flights of drone that didn't quite work as well. It was a beautiful album, but still felt tentative in places. The Cloud Of Unknowing arrives nearly a year after the above album, and it's a big step forward in nearly every way, progressing with such a steady hand that one would be hard-pressed to guess it came from a twenty-five year old.
Blackshaw isn't exactly a newbie, though. He's been prolifically releasing work for the past five years, with a batch of CDR releases, CD and LP releases, and a bunch of compilation appearances. Everything seems to have been building to this point, though, and with this release he's put together a five track, forty-minute release that's completely hypnotic, weaving his twelve-string guitar into long songs that are both virtuosic and somehow organic feeling at the same time. The release opens and closes with long tracks, and the album-titled "The Cloud of Unknowing" sets things off perfectly with ebbing and flowing melodies that find literally thousands of notes pouring down across one another over the course of eleven minutes. It's the sort of piece that locks in so completely that it somehow feels only one half or less its actual length, completely washing over you as it moves slightly skyward throughout.
"Running To The Ghost" again finds Blackshaw using some interesting tuning (as most of his songs do) while both glockenspiel and violin accent the quickly evolving guitar melodies. As with everything he does on this release, the additional instrumentation is very subtle, providing beautiful counter-melodies to his guitar. In fact, the confidence that Blackshaw shows with his guitar on The Cloud Of Unknowing is one of reasons it's so solid. On past releases, he'd get away from his instrument of choice at times, sometimes making the release veer off course a bit. Here, there's only one track ("Clouds Collapse") without guitars, and it arrives halfway through more as breather than anything else.
"The Mirror Speaks" roughens the edges just slightly, with a tinge of a blues influence as it winds through over six and a half minutes of spiraling sections as strings vibrate with vigor in places but eventually wind up in a warmer place. "Stained Glass Windows" closes the release, and at over fifteen minutes evolves so beautifully that it feels half that length. Starting out slightly more sparsely, it builds ever-so-slightly in intensity throughout, before some soft violin layers in about halfway through and takes it up yet another level. If you've heard past work from Blackshaw and enjoyed it, you absolutely can't go wrong with this release. I'm not going to say that it's on a par with work by the likes of John Fahey, but Blackshaw has clearly reached a level of composition and writing that is matched by few of his contemporaries. This is some stunning stuff.