Sir Richard Bishop / James Blackshaw
While My Guitar Violently Bleeds / The Cloud of Unknowing
Locust Music / Tompkins Square
B / B+
ohn Fahey’s specter is so omnipresent that it’s basically impossible to consider steel-string guitar composition—from any era—without discussing his imprint. It might finally be time to cut that shit out, though: solo guitar rumblers Sir Richard Bishop and James Blackshaw lead a handful of modern composers who share little more than Fahey’s instrument of choice and spirit of experiment.
Both Bishop and Blackshaw have Fahey in their closets; previous albums showed a loose commitment to folk and blues. A spattering of updated references—often Robbie Basho for his raga tendencies and Leo Kottke, presumably because like Blackshaw (and Basho) often worked with 12 strings—don’t play either, as both those Basho and Kottke were devoted students of Fahey, ditto for contemporary Jack Rose. Rather, Bishop and Blackshaw belong in a category of sound artists more consistently un-tethered and widescreen than Fahey and cohorts.
This sort of wandering is in Bishop’s blood, as he’s spent the last 20 odd years chopping wood for The Sun City Girls. The title of his third proper solo go, While My Guitar Violently Bleeds, suggests a nickel-scraping vortex of noise, but not much blood spills. Consisting of three increasingly lengthy compositions, While My Guitar… pouts and wilts in minimal bursts, hopping dimly between electric drone, raga, and miniatures of Latin melody, putting him closest to, say, Ben Chasny’s psych-oriented mission statements. Bishop’s styles don’t mingle much, though: “Zurvan” devotes itself to orange blocks of Latin fury, “Smashana” to free-form electric drone, and “Mahavidya” to pulsing acoustic coughs, eventually clawing towards impatient, frenzied strums.
Technically, Bishop steps backward here, preferring time-stretched ambience to pyrotechnics. He impresses in moments, leading to disconnected flair that rarely mounts, however resplendent, but on a “forest’ level While My Guitar… is much more the work of a sonic architect than a guitar virtuoso. While My Guitar… moves along pretty slowly even for an instrumental guitar album, crawling straight-faced toward a bit of an anti-climax, Bishop’s resume be damned.
Blackshaw, a London-based 12-string guitarist, has been building his way toward “a sound” for several years now, and he about gets there with The Cloud of Unknowing, his second album to see wide release. Last year’s O True Believers hued closer to a Fahey-inspired mix—strings rolled, jumped, and snapped, chord changes came on cue—Cloud has more in common with studied sound architects like Keith Fullerton Whitman. That comparison, as well as Cloud’s cover art and song titles—“The Mirror Speaks,” “Stained Glass Windows”—will do nothing to assuage sure-to-arrive “New Age!” battle cries.
At his best, Blackshaw turns 12 strings into 60, his fingers blurring the line between distinct notes and doughy sound mush, overtones leaking when he squeezes, notes gasping for air when he slows. Whitman and Fennesz mold recorded guitar bits into big-sky ambience, functionally the same as Blackshaw, even if his familiar-to-exquisite transcendence is impressively all his own. Two lengthy bookends govern Cloud, and during them Blackshaw generates so much able-bodied, young-man fury that it crosses back into the realm of calm soundscape, and ultimately establishing Blackshaw as the type of rare guitar talent that truly devours the instrument.
Fahey’s a deity, no doubt, but Bishop and especially Blackshaw are to be commended for moving towards different sonic pastures, and not for any for-the-sake-of-being-different hogwash. An album like Cloud honors Fahey ultimately by positing his idea of the acoustic guitar as a singular creative device, capable of both tradition and exploration. Bishop, even with his signals a bit crossed, partly abandons master-craftsmanship in favor of repetition and comes away sounding inspired, if not resplendent. Both are exciting not because they represent any sort of definable new school but because they’re fucking with enchanting sonic territory, methods and instruments be damned.