James Blackshaw, Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat

Andy Beta

By Andy Beta

on 07.08.14 in Reviews

There have been few superhero franchises as successful as that of Fantômas. It spans centuries and countries as well as all as media — there are Fantômas books, silent serials and feature films, comic books and television. In truth, superhero isn’t quite the correct term; the mysterious Fantômas is, instead, an anti-hero — a sadistic killer and sociopath. That avant-metal supergroup helmed by Mr. Bungle’s Mike Patton is named after him, and U.K. guitarist/ composer James Blackshaw’s latest album invokes that dastard once again.

Scaling back his guitar work on this silent film score

Last year, composer (and renowned Amelie soundtrack artist) Yann Tiersen invited Blackshaw to provide a live soundtrack for 1914 silent movie Le Faux Magistrat. Rather than utilize the formidable guitar skills that have defined much of his young discography, Blackshaw instead stretched out in his role as a composer, drawing on the sorts of arrangements that defined albums like 2009′s The Glass Bead Game. With an ensemble made up of American and British experimental players, as well as Slowdive drummer Simon Scott, Blackshaw leads on piano and guitar throughout this continuous 75-minute performance.

Fantômas : Le Faux Magistrat

James Blackshaw

Blackshaw’s piano sets the minor-key theme on the stately opening section, and the early parts of the soundtrack are carefully constructed: free horn lines, metallophones, bowed cymbals and simmering percussion rise without unnecessary drama. Though Blackshaw’s exquisite guitar work comes to the fore in the fourth section, he primarily sticks to piano, an instrumental shift that doesn’t always help the proceedings. His fretwork is what brought him critical attention, and his sense of melody at the bench feels overly cautious, lumbering and pat. Near the half-hour mark his playing turns downright maudlin, as if scoring a soap opera rather than a silent film.

The album’s centerpiece is the brooding, 10-minute eighth untitled track, which Blackshaw and group erect via rumbles, drones, wordless howls and menacing swells of feedback. Scott’s drums make such abstract noise cohere into a climax. But soon such visceral sounds recede until only Blackshaw’s floral piano lines remain, the last 10 minutes rehashing rather than resolving themes without a satisfying sense of conclusion. While anonymity was an effective ruse for the roguish Fantômas, it makes Blackshaw’s soundtrack feel undistinguished.