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Brethren of the Free Spirit - All Things are from Him, through Him and in Him

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Artist: Brethren of the Free Spirit

Album: All Things are from Him, through Him and in Him

Label: audioMER

Review date: Feb. 11, 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.

Josef 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

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