Although he had obviously shown immense talent and potential up until that point, it wasn't until James Blackshaw's O True Believers that I really felt like he was starting to unleash his full potential. When last years The Cloud Of Unknowing arrived, he'd made even more steps forward, and one year later Litany Of Echoes finds him continuing that progress. Completely dropping his slight forays into ambient drone, this is as focused as he's ever been, with the introduction of even more piano and string backing.
It's pretty apparent from the start, as "Gate Of Ivory" leaps forth with frenetic, repeated patterns of piano playing that call to mind Charlemagne Palestine or Lubomyr Melnyk, with sustain pedals firmly pressed to allow maximum tonal overlapping. "Past Has Not Passed" follows and is easily among the more moving pieces I've heard from Blackshaw (which is saying something). Starting out with what's essentially a string quartet of layered viola and violin from Fran Bury, Blackshaw moves in slowly, with some strums and finally slow picking that picks up steam ever-so-slowly. Over the course of twelve minutes, string shifts from Bury and some incredible chord changes from Blackshaw blur into an absolute stunner.
As the album centerpiece, "Echo & Abyss" is closer to the usual Blackshaw fare, with luscious 12-string melodies evolving for another twelve minutes, with the usual slight shifts that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. With the addition of both piano and strings, "Infinite Circle" quite possibly the most lush track on the release, and at just under six minutes is also one of the most succinct. During the shorter running length, Blackshaw is forced to be even more judicious with melodic ideas and it really pays off, with some downright hummable melodies that stick in your head.
As mentioned above, Blackshaw has shown new wrinkles with just about every release, and one of his strengths is simply not overdoing things. That said, I'd love to hear him really stretch out and keep introducing new instrumentation to his work. I can only imagine what heights he might reach with the addition of a small chamber ensemble and/or some brass. At the pace he's going, it seems he'll get there eventually though, and for the moment I can just enjoy the beautiful journey there.