artist: Brethren of the Free Spirit
title: All Things are from Him, through Him and in Him
artwork: Wouter Vanhaelemeesch
1. Аποκαλνψις, The Lifting Of The Veil
2. All Things Are From Him, Through Him And In Him
3. How The Unencumbered Soul Advises That One Not Refuse The Calls Of A Good Spirit
4. In Him Is No Sin
Brethren of the Free Spirit consists of 12 string guitarist James Blackshaw and Lutist Jozef Van Wissem. Both musicians have established themselves as respected artists in their own fields, so this collaboration comes with a lot of expectation behind it. That being said, All Things... is the first full introduction I’ve had to either musician, so I’m hearing it with pretty fresh ears. Blackshaw’s 12-string seems to be the dominant force for the first two tracks, setting a solid skeleton of minimal rhythmic guitar segments that slightly change and morph. The Lute seems to work a little more subtly on these tracks, either coming into play as an accent or mirroring the guitar. There is a strong meditative mood that seeps through these tracks, and by the middle of track two’s hypnotic, circular riffing, I am long gone. The subtle accents of the Lute and the slowly evolving passages of guitar remind me of a Phillip Glass composition. When the passages repeat so many times, things start to stick out and shift, and it’s hard to tell whether it is your own mind assimilating the pattern or the musicians playing tricks with you. Track three is a bit of an oddball here as it devolves into feedback, odd acoustic plucks, and cat meows. The mood is dark and kind of cartoonish. I’m thinking that the artists had a conceptual reason for including this track (and it does serve as a break from the heavy hypnotism of the other pieces), but I still wasn’t feeling it as strongly as the rest of the disc. The final track returns to the form of the first two, falling a little bit closer to madrigal territory, which is just fine with me. Things end on a positive note, and I’m left wanting to hear more. This great collaboration is a good example of contemporary musicians taking traditional instruments and song forms and adapting them to their own unique vision.
8/10 -- Charles Franklin (8 April, 2008)
Note: this review ends with a poor quality and highly unoriginal pun. Readers of a sensitive disposition should avert their eyes now, go stare at some kittens or something.
He is everywhere these days, James Blackshaw. I have even started seeing him at gigs, and when someone new by the name of Blackshaw started at work recently, I actually felt compelled to check that we hadn’t employed a guitarist to liven the place up a bit (well, my suggestion of a random employee sacrifice on the altar of the photocopier was vetoed, so I assumed they must have had a better idea). In the wake of last year’s excellent The Cloud of Unknowing album come these two unmissable new releases. The Brethren of the Free Spirit are a duo of Blackshaw on guitar and Jozef Van Wissem on lute. They open with a serenely meditative piece entitled The Lifting Of The Veil, whose delicate procession is brought to halt by, oddly, a burst of recorded applause. This seems to jolt the album back into life, the title track which follows is an intricate intermingling of strings which churns like a mantra and evidences the intense spirituality hinted at in the title. After an abstract and scarily godless-sounding piece, In Him Is No Sin ends the album on a more hopeful note, the players singing once from the same hymnsheet. The Garden of Forking Paths is Blackshaw’s curatorial attempt to trace a lineage of strings, drawing four lines way back to meet somewhere over the horizon of time. It is topped and tailed by the most striking exhibit: the koto of Chieko Mori; on Spiral Wave it rattles along excitingly, underpinned by an almost electronic sounding rhythmic fragment. Blackshaw’s guitar-driven A Broken Hourglass is a typically long, controlled tumble which rises to brief exclamations of near-religious euphoria, while his collaborator Van Wissem’s contribution is more understated albeit with a terrific middle section of lively lute. Between these two, Espers’ Helena Espvall arrow off along the garden’s most deviant fork, a sinister smear of cello which lends the compilation a dark heart. You can pick these two up at Boomkat/Boomkat. They are (cringe/cringe) fingerpickin’ good. Sorry, I warned you.
The Phoenix (Boston paper)
The Brethren of the Free Spirit are Dutch lutenist Jozef van Wissem and English guitarist James Blackshaw. With his breathtaking technique and a crystalline tone, the 24-year old Blackshaw has established himself as an unusual talent among a bevy of great 12-string guitarists cast in the mold of Robbie Basho and John Fahey. Van Wissem is a rarer breed still: to my knowledge, he’s the only avant-garde lute player out there, composing stark, minimalist compositions that often take the form of musical palindromes. Named after a group of 13th-century Northern European religious heretics (they’re detailed in Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces), this duo play with an appropriately zealous intensity. Repetition is the name of the game: there’s a sportive, serve-and-volley quality at play throughout, something Van Wissem alludes to with his use of recordings from tennis matches, which pop up from time to time. The Lifting of the Veil and the amazing marathon title track are endurance tests for the players. Intricate phrases circle and spiral in on themselves, and in the end it’s the subtle shifts in rhythm and tonal coloration that provide a kind of transcendence in a sea of repetition. by SUSANNA BOLLE , March 12, 2008 10:22:09 AM
Brethren Of The Free Spirit combines the considerable 12-string guitar talents of James Blackshaw with the lute skills of Dutch instrumentalist Josef Van Wissem. Those of you who picked up the excellent Blackshaw-curated Garden Of Forking Paths compilation on Important a couple of weeks back will already be familiar with Van Wissem's abilities, dexterously coaxing his baroque instrument into the modern age. The two musicians compliment each other beautifully – there's no treading on toes here, but neither do the two performers hold back excessively. Instead, they're smart enough to know how to fit around one another, avoiding excessive clutter but not compromising on the kind of elaborate, intricate musicianship we've come to demand from a Blackshaw-related release. While the first two pieces are fairly extensive jaunts, the album as a whole fits neatly into a slightly sub-thirty-minute duration, meaning that there's really no room for excessive noodling or repetition. In recent years Blackshaw's playing, while remaining impressively florid, has become more and more about playing within the context of a song format. Van Wissem fits in with that profile too, carving out tuneful ragas on In Him is no Sin, only for Blackshaw to respond with chiming counter melodies. It's not all about deftly fingerpicked passages however, and on How the Unencumbered Soul advises that One not refuse the Calls of a Good Spirit the duo venture into a droning, electrified soundscape populated by screeching cat voices and guitar tones mirroring their cries, while Blackshaw makes like Derek Bailey and disjointedly plots an unruly harmonic path across the span of the piece. A predictably brilliant set of performances all round – and a massive recommendation.
Jozef Van Wissem again, but this time with a friend and very accomplished musician from the UK, James Blackshaw on 12 string guitar. On All Things… Jozef and James create an even more traditional sounding record, by using some intensive and repetitive rhythms they enter a hypnotic, tribal sound. Title track is 2, All Things are from Him, through Him and in Him is especially tribal in flavour, it's constant loops and slight variations of the interweaved lute and guitar, along with a danceable tempo give a new meaning to the word Gigue. In reality the Brethren are more intense and quite considerably less varied melodically than traditional theme and variation, but this great intensity comes from the monotony of loop and and the somehow vocal, bassier pulses. How the Unencumbered Soul advises that One not refuse the Calls of a Good Spirit is the most experimental and a little aggressive and dark in places. It includes some tuned and sculpted feedback and a cat – now I don't know what that was with the cat (heisst: bunbun), but I really liked the combination of intricate feedback dynamics and discordant, almost out of tune bullets points on the lute that develops very very gradually into more rhythmical passages and then, in turn, harmonics. In Him is no Sin has a more folk feel, and back to a dancier rhythm. The strong alternating up and down strokes of Lute and Guitar really encourage movement. Then in great Jozef style more countermelodies are added, filling my room with layers and textures and taking me away to some kind of stoned (talking of drugs not minerals) medieval court back in England. All Things… is a good cooperation and cumulation of contrasting talents, James being an self taught guitarist who has toured extensively and Jozef, the more traditional musician, who likewise is globally recognised. Together they create complex, uplifting but also relaxing counterpoint and textural/pulse based music. (Brethren Of The Free Spirit All Things are from Him, through Him and in Him – audioMER./A-Musik)
This is the work of two consummate stringed instrument manipulators working in the improvised avant-folk idiom... Brother 1, from England, AQ fave James Blackshaw (who just blew us away with an amazing solo instore performance two weeks ago!), a dexterous master of the 12 string guitar. Brother 2, from Belgium, Renaissance lute player Jozef Van Wissem (who was also recently scheduled for an AQ instore alongside his pal Tetuzi Akiyama but unfortunately had to cancel due to a bad cold or flu). Van Wissem has received acclaim from us and others for his solo recordings incorporating electronics and field recordings alongside his innovations on classical lute improvisation. Together, it's a perfect pairing, Blackshaw and Van Wissem conjuring a delicately dense intertwining of forward-flowing fingerpicked minimalist melodies... stately spiritual praises that are all instrumental but for a brief Current 93-ish spoken coda to track one, The Lifting Of The Veil. And track three, How The Unencumbered Soul Advises That One Not Refuse The Calls Of A Good Spirit, is more of an electrically-charged, expansive soundscape of moody string-strike. Electronics, "tennis edits" and the "feline vocals" of one Bun Bun are also woven into the mix with Blackshaw's 12 string and Van Wissem's Baroque lute. To sum up: alchemical loveliness, utterly mesmeric! Really our only complaint about this is also a compliment: at just under a half hour total (28:39), we wish it were longer! The trance-like reveries this induces are too soon interrupted unless we set our cd player on repeat... (not an option with the super-limited vinyl version of this of course). That's right, the LP version is LIMITED TO 330 COPIES. Whereas the CD is limited to a mere 1000. And we only have a few of the vinyl…
Two whimsical kids get together, delve into a dualistic world and deliver something that they call Brethren Of The Free Spirit. That's more or less how you could describe the collaboration between fingerpicker James Blackshaw and lutist Jozef Van Wissem. This release means, besides being the first partnership between the two musicians, also the maiden voyage of a Belgian, Ghent-based label called audioMER. If this is the standard for future releases, than they'll have some issues we guess. How to cope with such luxury? Easily said, Brethren contentiously seems a comment on and maybe an escape from the hunting of every day life. The way in which that message is wrapped is more than often inspiring and hypnotic. It seems that Blackshaw wanted to invest in Van Wissem's musical world by going into the flow of the latter's palindromes, without forgetting his own distinctive voice. And that is at the very same time the most remarkable comment that we would like to give. Although we are overwhelmed by the music's sheer beauty, the two haven't been able to write their personal renewed lexicon together. And isn't that the point of doing these kind of experiments: to strengthen each other over and over again, inhaling each others damps, breathing it in and out together? Trying to find something absolutely sovereign, like God? Or do we just face our desire to the flesh, the eyes and pride in possessions? Anyway, they couldn't pass the threshold of contradiction and get onto the self-fulfilment of Brethren. Closest to jointed lexicon, they come in How The Unencumbered Soul Advises that One not refuse the Calls of a Good Spirit. If you look at the complete body of this work we have to agree with those who find this work of repetitiveness an expedition of persuaded enlightenment and questioning, in which field-recordings blend with Van Wissem and Blackshaw's craftsmanship. We would say that Van Wissem plus Blackshaw, gives too little Brethren, which is a missed chance. But, to accentuate that we find this a good album, we underline that in the end it is the limited amount of tunes, that is characterising this album of experimental folk, is what troubles us most.
Review by Peter, February 2008
In the few years since his debut recording was released in 2004, James Blackshaw has elicited enthusiastic praise from all corners with his work on the 12-string acoustic guitar. Mentioned amongst the names of guitarists decidedly his senior, whose discographies dwarf Blackshaw's modest output, the suburban Londoner has staked a claim as one of the instrument's most noteworthy new voices, making music that's both compositionally and emotionally beyond what one might expect from a musician his age. Jozef Van Wissem provides the unexpected as well, in the form of his preferred instrument, the lute. Little used since 1800, the lute has remained the realm of early music enthusiasts, but Van Wissem is attempting to bring the instrument to new listeners, transforming centuries-old compositional idioms into reversed or palindromic structures. The Netherlands native has previously recorded with Gary Lucas and Tetuzi Akiyama, and now finds himself paired with Blackshaw to form Brethren of the Free Spirit, a duo named after the controversial Christian sect whose teachings held that a true relationship with God rendered one incapable of sin (and, in the eyes of their critics, led to all manners of adultery and other misdeeds). The original Brethren's mysticism doesn't seem to have a palpable effect on their namesakes, save for the religious imagery in the track titles, but given Van Wissem's penchant for historical inspiration, the reference makes more sense. Learned in the traditional ways of the lute, Van Wissem has relied heavily, at times, on compositions and styles of the lutenists who've come before him. Far from a musical parasite, Van Wissem has approached the material in a more conceptual manner, at times playing pieces in reverse, composing musical palindromes, and utilized Burroughs-like cut-ups and rearrangement. Blackshaw's compositions for guitar tread less conceptual ground, and while the influence of minimalism, ethnic traditions and modern classical can be heard in his work, Blackshaw's playing is frequently more visceral in nature, a more passionate display of emotion. In Brethren of the Free Spirit, the two successfully reconcile their styles, for the most part, with aplomb. On The Lifting of the Veil, Blackshaw handles the track's primary melodic arc, with Van Wissem's lute offering expertly timed accompaniment. Usually in the form of single notes, Van Wissem's contributions to the track both augment the impact of a particular strum from Blackshaw, and fill the guitarist's rests with a skeletal response. Van Wissem isn't always forced to the backseat, though he seems to have a tendency to allow Blackshaw the limelight's brightest glare. But, like many the bassist in a rock band, Van Wissem is often the music's lynchpin, and a close listening reveals that its his simple playing that provides the propulsion for Blackshaw's whirling minimalist cycles. All Things are from Him, through Him, and in Him cultivates a rich atmosphere, but it's on How The Unencumbered Soul Advises that One Not Refuse the Calls of a Good Spirit that the atmosphere is at its most palpable. Amidst spare chords from Blackshaw, Van Wissem plays with electronics, distorted strumming, and samples to create the album's most unconventional track, never wholly abstract, but decidedly more disjointed, with a baby's cry and tennis commentary in the mix, than the rest of the album. It's a track of mixed success, but not a great blemish on the album overall, which, on the remaining three tracks, rarely strays from a formula that Blackshaw and Van Wissem execute with consistent aplomb. The album's melodic repetitions, from which the bulk of the music is constructed, come in unrelenting waves, with only slight variation. All Things are From Him, Through Him, and In Him, as it moves from deep and dark to pastoral, stays even-keeled, with the repetition maintaining a sustained climate rather than building towards an inevitable climax. Unlike their namesakes, these Brethren of the Free Spirit keep things well under control, crafting a beautiful collaboration of complimentary composition.
By Adam Strohm
Allthough I've loved just about every single thing I've heard from these guys singly, I'll admit I wasn't quite prepared for how incredible this new collaboration between twelve-string guitarist James Blackshaw and Baroque lutenist Jozef Van Wissem was going to be. I've been told secondhand that these pieces were devised as a kind of endurance test, if that's actually true then these guys are like the freaking Lance Armstrongs of acoustic string music. The thing is though that these four long tracks don't just drone on and on, each player is exceedingly sympathetic to the other and provides a muscular counterpoint that I didn't even realize was needed in their respective solo works. The compositions are consistently engaging and play to the strengths of both instruments. The first track is a colossus and worth the price of the album alone, 45 strings in dialog conjuring an ever-shifting array of tonalities and patterns that will no doubt stand as one of the most powerful pieces of music I'll hear all year. A high watermark in both men's discographies.
[MK] (February 6, 2008)
Album Of The Week. Brethren of The Free Spirit / All Things Are From Him, Through Him And In Him (CD/LP on audioMER.)
In an ideal world James Blackshaw would be working here playing his guitar in the corner of the room from 9 til 5. Then we wouldn't have to listen to half the other gash that's released each week. Life would be better and I reckon I'd have a much calmer outlook on life. In the absence of him slaving away here for my sole pleasure I have to appease myself with the reasonably small amount of his recorded output. The newest addition to his family is an album by him & Jozef Van Wissem under the guise of Brethren Of The Free Spirit. All Things Are from Him, Through Him And In Him is on new label audioMER. Here we here have 4 tracks showcasing amazing guitar playing and musicianshipery. Blackshaw plays his usual 12 stringer and Van Wissem plays a 13 course baroque lute (whatever one of them is), electronics and Tennis Edits and together they make a rather special record. It's the 12 string guitar that carries this album from start to end with it's bright crispness. It kicks off with a couple of typical suitably familiar Blackshaw tracks which totally are the business. The opener The Lifting Of The Veil sounds very soundtracky indeed. Very emotive and it's perfectly complimented with Van Wissem's lute. The title track is one of those cyclical guitar ragas which Blackshaw has seemed to master pretty quickly. It's vintage sounding gear and if you ask me is one of the finest pieces of music I've heard in a while. In fact I think it's the best thing I've heard him do since Sunshrine (my favourite tune he's done). How The Enencombered Soul Advises… is a dark piece of music which is as claustrophobic as it is sleazy. It makes me think of dark alleys full of tramp juice filled men wavering their filth bodies surrounded by scraggy death cats..... It's a dark piece of music with cats miaowing in the background (oddly enough). If you're interested the cat is called Bun Bun. Then it all ends with In Him Is No Sin which is more cyclical loveliness complimented with some warm electronics and that lute thing again. Works a right proper treat and the two together seem to have developed some musical chemistry. Put simply this album is really good. 4 tracks oozing with passion and emotion. Stick with it as it just gets better and better... BTW Mr. Blackshaw, it's 6.50 an hour plus "benefits".