"Listen as if you were being told a secret” - Federico Fellini
A companion piece to 2018’s Listening To Pictures, this second volume in the pentimento series presents eight new tracks by the music visionary, continuing his lifelong exploration of the possibilities of recombination and musical gene-splicing. Pentimento is defined as the “reappearance in a painting of earlier images, forms, or strokes that have been changed and painted over” and this is evident in the innovative production style that ‘paints with sound’ using overlapping nuances to create an undefinable and intoxicating new palette.
In classic Hassell fashion, the title can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, but perhaps the most pertinent at the moment is the human instinct to sing and play through a rain of difficulties. A future blues of indeterminate and ever-shifting shape. The album is buffered by two 8-minute plus epics at the beginning and the end - the hypnotic “Fearless” with it’s metronomic, almost Can-like rhythm, and blurry, noir-ish texture of sound emerging like car headlights from the fog; mirrored at the end of the record by the beautiful sci-fi lullaby of “Timeless”, a track with a gaseous, billowing quality as electronic clicks and bubbles float over a landscape of shimmering, glacially paced complexity. The bridge between those two worlds is no less compelling, from the frantic, spidery IDM sketch of “Reykjavik” to the collapsed-time ballad of “Unknown Wish”. Whilst containing seeds of classic ‘fourth world’ fusion, this record finds the artist still questing to create new forms and mutations of music, a thrilling window into what music could sound like in a world to come.
On the sequel to last year’s Listening to Pictures, the octogenarian trumpet player slips into memoirist mode, allowing old tropes from his past to flicker back to life.
Asked about his time playing with Miles Davis, saxophonist Gary Bartz once said of the jazz icon’s many sonic shifts, “Everything around him changed, but he didn’t change.” Trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell, himself a lifelong fan of Miles, has embraced that philosophy. Across a long career that found him at the birth of American minimalism and then, on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, the summit of art rock—not to mention in creative dialogue with Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel—the 83-year-old Hassell has always sounded irreducibly like himself. His tone voice-like and alien, earthy and phantasmal, vacillating between a child’s yip and an elephant whinny, Hassell’s electronically processed horn and its bioluminescent smears have interacted with Brazilian percussion, computer glitches, West African drums, and more. While the scenery has consistently shifted over the past 50 years, he has remained a catalyst for dynamic fusions.
Hassell returned from a nine-year absence with 2018’s Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One), an album of cracked electronics and flinty miniatures. While he had always operated at the fringes of experimental, world, and jazz music, in his time away, artists like Destroyer, Oneohtrix Point Never, Visible Cloaks, Sam Gendel, and others had brought his sensibilities toward more popular acceptance. Leaning into familiar ideas while also forging ahead, Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) is the far warmer of the two works, despite titles that allude to Iceland and Saturn’s frozen moons. In its most mesmerizing moments, Hassell slips into memoirist mode, allowing old tropes from his past to flicker back to life.
The telltale drums on “Moons of Titan”—like a distant rainstorm, yet interior as a pulse—will be familiar to fans of Hassell’s early ’80s work like Dream Theory in Malaya, as will the high trilling of his horn between them. But there’s more space for an ethereal electronic haze to rise, making it feel even more dreamlike. “Delicado” and its skipping CD rhythm are closest in texture to Volume One, full of neo-noir ambience shot through with Hassell’s lyricism, cool yet unpredictable, a Chet Baker hologram on the fritz.
On the longer tracks that bookend the set, Hassell works with a wider canvas to immersive effect. The eight-minute “Fearless” lies somewhere between Oval’s Systemisch and Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly.” A quintet piece featuring violin, electric guitars, and bass clarinet (though you’d be hard pressed to identify each liquified element), it allows Hassell plenty of space to growl and wax elegiac as the music ever so slowly dissolves. On “Lunar,” each element warps around Hassell’s horn and harmonizer, creating a sound that feels both triumphant and nauseous, as if flag-planting on a distant planet just as your oxygen runs out.
“Timeless,” another eight-minute composition, originally appeared on the Dreamy Harbor compilation for Berlin’s Tresor, where Hassell was slotted alongside techno luminaries like Terrence Dixon, Juan Atkins, and Moritz von Oswald. Gently reworked here with additional percussion from Adam Rudolph, quivering strings, and glissades of piano, the piece bubbles and flutters, neither rising nor increasing in intensity, but growing more exquisite as it goes along. Back in April, Brian Eno started a GoFundMe for Hassell, who as a cancer survivor is at high risk of severe COVID-19 infection. Hassell is now out of intensive care, but he’s still well short of his fundraising goal, and one wonders how much more music lies ahead for the octogenarian artist. In that light, the fittingly titled “Timeless” takes on additional resonance as a portrait of the master musician, unbowed and still considering every expressive breath.
by Andy Beta (Pitchfork) User Comments