James Blackshaw: Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat
Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat represents a bit of a departure for James Blackshaw. In place of a conventional studio-based recording, the seventy-four-minute release presents the live score he created for Le Faux Magistrat that was performed at the Théâtre de Châtelet in Paris on October 31, 2013. The project came about when Yann Tiersen invited Blackshaw to perform the material as part of the celebration of the centenary of Louis Feuillade's Fantômas silent film series. And lest anyone think that the score only features Blackshaw's long-admired fretwork, the nylon string guitarist, who also plays grand piano, is accompanied by Duane Pitre (electric guitar, electric bass, synthesizer, cymbal, vibraphone), Simon Scott (drums, electronics, vocals), and Charlotte Glasson (violin, vibraphone, alto sax, flute).
In composing the material, Blackshaw, we're told, drew upon a host of influences, among them French impressionism, Brazilian guitar music, musique concrete, and film composers such as David Shire and Pino Donaggio. The result is understandably episodic and shape-shifting, a dramatic score that uninterruptedly wends its way through moods of varying kinds, even if brooding and noir-tinged ones predominate.
During its opening minutes, Blackshaw's piano is joined by Scott's emphatic drumming and Glasson's evocative violin lines. The recording clearly benefits from her gifts as a multi-instrumentalist, though if one weak element in the score stands out more than any other, it's her blustery sax. To be precise, that's less a criticism of her playing, which is exemplary throughout (her violin especially), than a comment on the way the sax's presence as a soundtrack cliche taints the score. Another less-than-enthralling moment arrives when the music lapses into a listless downtempo episode featuring piano noodling, wailing sax, and post-rock drumming. It's moments like these that suggest an edited version of the score would have made for a better release.
Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat is more effective when it distances itself from soundtrack conventions, as it does during an exploratory section that sees Blackshaw's guitar picking augmented by vibes and violin as well as during subsequent Brazilian-tinged and Debussy-esque episodes that stand out as melodically distinguished. Also memorable are a dusty part that pairs Glasson's flute and Blackshaw's guitar plus a Tiersen-like piano-centered section that surfaces at the fifty-five-minute mark. Of course the question naturally arises as to whether the score is diminished by the absence of the visual component and how well it holds up as a stand-alone entity. Though overlong, Blackshaw's score for the most part manages to command one's attention, in large part due to its ever-evolving nature and constantly changing sonic design. Having said that, it's hard to imagine that one's impression of Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat wouldn't be enhanced by experiencing the score in conjunction with the film.