in-depth: james blake; in the stuttering silence

James Blake; in the stuttering silence.

Somewhere, away from it all, James Blake has brought to life a strange re-imagining of the world. He whispers it to life out of the silence, caressing the growing form with his breath, ushering it forth with outstretched hands. From the silence Blake’s creature has grown, and it is from that silence that it finds it strength.

Since Air & Lack Thereof (what could be more fitting name) we’ve come to gain massive respect for James Blake, for it was here that we first heard his unique talent for crossing breathing space with a keen ear for melody. From those first lonely notes come a flourishing experience that, as will come apparent, is a very unique and special thing distilled in nearly all of his works. It’s an ontological listening experience that separates your clouded mind from your corporeal jiggling self. As your body works its way into the rhythms, as broken as they are, your mind wonders from yourself, searching the space around it only blindly aware of what’s going on in the physical realm. I liken it to sitting in a crowded room with all the bluster of life happening in front of you, but as your friends talk around you you find yourself concentrating on matters detached from your present situation. Suddenly your mind is awash with all different feelings or memories, all of which vie for space in the front of your mind, and as this happens you become detached from the physical. James Blake finds in silence that way to disconnect your mind from your body, it alleviates the ceaseless noise in your head.

James Blake – Air & Lack Thereof

The Bells Sketch EP stretches this idea yet again as layer upon layer add themselves to the mix. Each one appears formed from a separate moment, colliding in the speakers like an air thick with smoke. On the eponymous opener Blake reaches for the melody, bringing in vocal samples to tie the piece together, and as the noises pass from speaker to speaker it begins to make more sense as a whole work. It’s carries the same dread as Burial, shifting through ambient noise and injected with clicks and glitches. Yet, the melody is more playful; here G-funk synthesizers bump up against cut-up samples to bring a technicolour wash to whole scene. The dark, urban soundscape becomes littered with a flirtatious natural element.

James Blake – The Bells Sketch

CMYK is no doubt his most known work, featuring of course, the title track which has helped him craft out a name in his own right. It is also an evolution in sound, tracing a lineage from 90s American R’n’B, through UK Garage all the way to Dubstep. The production on this album finds itself dipping into a multitude of influences, best found on the single CMYK itself. Taking it’s lead vocal sample from Kelis’ Caught Out There, pitch-shifted and deformed to be almost entirely unrecognisable, Blake moulds this creation out of the stuttering silences found in the pop and lock of R’n’B and Garage. As vocals slide in and out punctuating the track with moments of melody, synth lines run and stop, accents come in, pops and clicks run to and fro mimicking the playfulness of that R’n’B sound, Blake will force you to stop and listen to the silence, if only just for a moment. Then the noise and ambience will take over and as whole movements are created the silence disappears. Yet, he still manages to play on this as noise moves in and out of the track. It’s not a noiseless silence, but a silence found within the crowd. A noise will catch your ear but it will exist for only a second, and then you’re back in the silence of your own self again.

James Blake – CMYK

The EP CMYK is penetrated with a kind of holy reverence, a quietude that leans towards contemplation. Throughout the four tracks on the EP quiet is observed in split second flashes; from the church to the club. This is of course best realised in Blake’s source material, which takes its common ancestry in traditional R’n’B and Gospel music. On Footnotes it is in the synthesizer melody that appears and reappears cloning a kind of Sly and the Family Stone-esque organ sound. Of course the vocal samples help and the rumbling bass that cuts through momentarily is pure awe-of-God stuff. Again I’ll Stay begins with those pronounced snare and guitar accents that sound like they’ve been ripped off of something The O’Jays did. However instead of the inside of a Pentecostal Church we are still treated to the unique atmosphere of Dubstep, which gifts itself so magnificently to centres of urban living where the Dubstep scene really finds itself being played out. Recreational bedroom listening in apartments/flats/houses up and down the country is probably where most of the actual confrontation with this music happens, and as the towns expand and expand into even greater conurbations the glitchy atmospheric dynamics of Dubstep seem more and more to mimic the reality of our own living. A street light weighs it’s dim-glow heavy on my window as I write this, and all the time cars and lorries pass creating a transitory, neurotic environment that never seems to rest. Within this backdrop CMYK‘s stuttering silence seems to become more and more personal like a resting place to escape from the noise. And that contemplation space gains an increasing weight within me as I listen to this record.

James Blake – Footnotes

In Klavierwerke James Blake finds the perfect expression of reverence, of silence, and of contemplation. Silence becomes his best weapon. Again, as always, parts drop in and out, bass lines run and stop, whole movements come to a close before springing up again. But Klavierwerke works on an evolved basis, learning from its predecessors and moving forward. Silence is utilised much more freely on this record. It’s as if Blake imagines the record springing forth from the silence around it, rather than silence appearing in gaps within the music. Let me try and break this idea down for you. Opening track Klavierwerke reveals the brittle structure of this EP, one that is fragile and built around repeating parts. At any moment the structure could fall because the only thing that holds it together is the silence that the music is embedded in. Each part appears to be recorded separately and then mixed together, which in turn brings its own unique silence to every piece, whether or not that is deliberate or just illusory. Of course this reaches its furthest point of extrapolation at 4:05 when the music drops out completely for one or two seconds, allowing the track to become congruous with its own silence. Immediately after, wummpph, the sub-bass moves in and brittle structure finds itself being rebuilt, only to sway violently in the vibrations.

James Blake – Klavierwerke

I Only Know (What I Know Now) gives great emphasis to silence. The opening stops and starts numerous times before it find it’s feet. But it never loses its sense of rhythm, which is the remarkable thing about it. The silence acts as another beat, an anti-drop, another musical instrument to be explored and worked with. It is also the highpoint of the EP, linking Blake’s own melancholy and sober voice, effected and bent out of all shape, with a contemplative and esoteric atmosphere. And yet, while it maybe inward looking Blake still manages to capture real beauty in the melody, letting his natural playfulness shine through.

James Blake – I Only Know (What I Know Now)

As a whole it is a remarkable work, and one can imagine the hours sat at the piano (as in the German translation of klavierwerke, piano work) in a reflexive and meditative mood, working out the simple arrangements, or more complex ones as the work moves from individual instrument arrangements to piecing the whole thing together. In James Blake we find a man who can temper his musical creations to exploring the outside world, and the inner space we continually seek as a world becomes more and more interconnected. Space and silence are hard to find now as we struggle to avoid the many distractions that our day to day lives bring us, yet in James Blake there is an artist who helps detach ourselves from the unending noise. He helps us find the silence within ourselves.

Further listening: Check out James Blake’s cover of Feist’s Limit to Your Love, to be released on November 8th, on Atlas.

Equally, this sparse yet beautiful number is an unreleased work entitled I Never Learnt to Share.


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