An effortless, beautiful listen
Ben Willmott
12:37 28th July 2020

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Veteran of the avant garde Jon Hassell is one of those name that generally hovers below the mainstream radar while maintaining a Zelig-like knack for cropping up whenever something interesting is going on. A quick glance at Hassell's musical CV shows he’s collaborated with everyone from Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel to David Sylvian, Brian Eno and even Techno Animal - the forerunner of Ninja Tune’s crushing industrial dub titans The Bug. But it’s as an artist in his own right, creating genre-splicing, atmospheric electronic soundscapes augmented by his haunting trumpet style, that we see the Memphis-born musician at his rawest and truest.

Hassell turned 83 years-old a few months back, though age doesn’t seem to have dampened his enthusiasm for bending the rules of music and experimenting with new forms and textures. But while Seeing Through Sound is uncompromising in terms of its disregard for convention, it is anything but a forbidding listen.

Rather, these eight tracks work subtly but seductively, drawing you in and slipping all but unnoticed from one to the next. Opening track ‘Fearless’ has a skeletal but undeniable slow-motion groove over which electronics, the vaguest hint of strings and a two-note bassline glide like clouds on a summer’s day. ‘Moons of Titan’ follows next, its magical synth pads and effects-treated trumpet morphing into one shape: a refreshing, cool breeze of sound.

The Pentimento technique referred to in the title is defined in the press release 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. It’s most apparent as we veer into the core of the album. ‘Unknown Wish’ proves the most abstract moment yet: a collage of disembodied and glitches that leads onto ‘Delicado’ and ‘Reykjavik’, both which nod to Miles Davis at his most free and improvisational.

‘Cool Down Coda’ signifies a move back into rhythm, albeit a skittering Aphex-style ballbearings-down-staircase beat that the mysterious instrumentation binds itself to. ‘Lunar’ uses layers of quiet static and echoey delays to create a floating, spacey vibe, before ‘Timeless’ brings us full circle. This closing eight-minute cut clocks in somewhere between the bubbling arpeggios of Terry Riley – another former collaborator of Hassell’s - and the cosmic dub of The Orb.

Palatable pop fodder this most certainly is not, though if you’ve made it this far into the review you’ve figured that out - and aren’t in the least bit bothered. While on paper Seeing Through Sound may be a serious left-of-centre undertaking, in reality it’s an effortless, beautiful listen.  Or, as Hassell, so fond of the visual metaphor when it comes to describe his music, might well say: it’s well worth a look.

Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) is out now.

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Photo: Press