A few weeks ago, I received an email from America that mostly consisted of an encomium from Michael Gira on the subject of his newest signing to Young God, James Blackshaw. I’m more of an admirer than a fan of Gira’s music, and not all of the music on his label has worked for me; Akron/Family, for instance, after countless attempts remain mystifyingly unappealing.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from America that mostly consisted of an encomium from Michael Gira on the subject of his newest signing to Young God, James Blackshaw. I’m more of an admirer than a fan of Gira’s music, and not all of the music on his label has worked for me; Akron/Family, for instance, after countless attempts remain mystifyingly unappealing.

When Gira writes about music, however, from the first time he introduced Devendra Banhart to the world, he’s always compelling. Blackshaw, he wrote, “is a virtuoso of the 12 string guitar, but he’s anything but showy. He lays out patterns and shapes that subtly shift over time and lead you to a deeply satisfying mental state. Recently, driving around with the car stereo blasting his music I found myself inexplicably weeping. Why??? The music’s not sad, or even mournful really. It’s just exquisite in an ineffable way, and taps into a place, a dream place, or a pre-thought place, which each of us might recognize was always there inside of us and is suddenly revealed. Like coming home after a painful journey, we suppose…”

Regular readers will know that I’ve tried to say similar things, minus the weeping, about Blackshaw pretty much since the Wild Mercury Sound blog began: so evangelically, in fact, that I turned on enough of my colleagues to get last year’s “Litany Of Echoes” up to Number 13 in Uncut’s Albums Of The Year, as well as Number One in the 2008 Wild Mercury Sound chart.

It’s a relief, then, to discover that his first Young God album, “The Glass Bead Game”, continues Blackshaw’s hot streak that has stretched for four or five years now. This one has five longish to epic tracks, two of which feature Blackshaw on piano, a development of the work he initiated on “Litany Of Echoes”.

The sound this time is a little fuller, a little more orchestrated, a little further away from the folk/Takoma school tag he was first saddled with, but his grace-filled compositional style remains more or less consistent. The opening “Cross”, for instance, finds him backed by strings (from Current 93 members John Contreras and Joolie Wood) and a wordless female vocal, but it’s melodically kin to “Spiralling Skeleton Memorial” from 2006’s “O True Believers”.

When Blackshaw played Club Uncut last year, he told one Uncut staffer that he intended singing on this next record. That hasn’t happened, it seems, since the voice he’s used is that of Lavinia Blackwall, the early music scholar I’ve mentioned before and whose own new record with Trembling Bells I’ll be tackling any day now.

Anyhow, it’s extraordinarily pretty, and is followed by the magnificent “Bled”, much in the style of last year’s “Echo And Abyss”, where spacious, plangent 12-string guitar strokes evolve into a rippling and complex net of discreetly unravelling melodies. “Key” is notionally folkier, but it’s those two piano pieces, “Fix” and the 18-minute “Arc” that stand out.

“Fix” is a gorgeous, pensive study that sits somewhere between minimalism and romanticism in much the same way as some work by Michael Nyman (something specific by him, even, perhaps from “Drowning By Numbers”, though I haven’t gone back and checked). “Arc”, meanwhile, also has a vague affinity with Nyman, but as it progresses from a sombre opening into great clusters and flurries, I’m reminded more of Steve Reich and maybe even Chris Abrahams of The Necks.

This time, Blackshaw cedes some of the melodic donkey work to the string players, but there’s still a shape to “Arc” that is immediately recognisable as his work, a shape that’s familiar to so many of his tunes from “Sunshrine” onwards. Here’s Gira again:

“The 18 minute-plus gem on this record is ‘Arc’, performed on piano with the sustain peddle on full throttle, and the rush of sound created by the overtones-from-heaven, augmented by strings and wind, when played at proper (full) volume, is one of the most thrilling pieces of music I’ve heard in years. It takes a rare and single-minded courage and commitment to make music with such a powerfully positive force at its heart, especially in these troubled times.”

Wise words, and an extraordinary album. Incidentally, there’s a bunch of guitar soli stretching out in interesting directions at the moment, and I should be blogging soonish about Peter Walker’s flamenco and archival excursions, the new Sir Richard Bishop disc and a great comp from Honest Jon’s called “Open Strings – Early Virtuoso Recordings From The Middle East, And New Responses”.

That last comp features Rick Tomlinson, aka Voice Of The Seven Woods, and a UK guitarist who’s often bracketed with Blackshaw (I think they made an album together some time ago that’s still not seen a release). Anyway, rather hopelessly of me, I’ve neglected to mention a live album that Rick sent me a while back. It’s called “Night Time Recordings From Göteborg” and it’s thoughtful, gentle and quite beautiful. Try and pick one up if you can.