Boomkat Product Review:
Recorded live and mixed by none other than Brian Eno, 'The Surgeon...' is one of Fourth World inaugurator Hassell's most breathtaking full-lengths, capturing the physicality of his performance and matching his lopsided trumpet work with hypnotic synths and ghostly, muted percussion. If you've not jumped into his catalog before, this is the perfect starting point!
Jon Hassell is one of those artists whose influence has massively outweighed his marketability. His solo albums never broke wholly into the mainstream, but you can hear his concepts - particularly his idea of "Fourth World" music - referenced by artists as diverse as Arve Henriksen, Visible Cloaks, Sam Gendel and Spencer Clark. It's almost impossible to dig into the contemporary ambient/new age canon and not find a nod to Hassell at the moment, basically. 'The Surgeon...' was released in 1987, and Hassell called up the same ensemble that helped him realize 1986's ECM-released 'Power Spot': guitarist Michael Brook, keyboardist Jean-Philippe Rykiel and percussionist J.A. Deane, with Richard Horowitz added on synth. The album was recorded live at various venues in Paris, Vancouver, Hamburg and Brussels to try and capture the mood of Hassell's performances, then the stems were processed and mixed by Hassell and his regular collaborator Eno in the studio. And unlike its notoriously beat-heavy predecessor, this full-length burrows into Hassell's most esoteric fantasies, prioritizing the swooning, enigmatic textures and subtle, unfamiliar rhythms that would later inspire a generation of new age revivalists.
'The Surgeon...' opens with its most considerable track, the 20-minute 'Ravinia/Vancouver'. Hassell's distinctive, wave-y trumpet sound - that he developed under Indian raga master Pandit Pran Nath - is initially the primary focus here, curling over quieted, tuned percussion and pliant synths. He's not afraid of broadcasting his process, and the aesthetic qualities of the sound are revelatory; Hassell's technique was revolutionary at the time and still sounds singular, using untempered tones and hypnotic, repeating phrases that fluctuate seamlessly as they whirl. And at the halfway point, the trumpet almost slips into the ether, leaving a pattering, Indian-inspired drumwork and slushy, soporific drones. Eno's fingerprints are most evident when Hassell's breaths melt into the percussion, whispering around the shaker sounds. Even more dumbfounding is 'Hamburg', a track that's so forward-thinking, dubby and atmospheric that it approaches the realm of artists like Vladislav Delay, Monolake and Biosphere. With undulating, gaseous synth sounds forming an immovable wall in the background, percussionist Deane plays a lucid, low-end heavy throb using electronic and acoustic drums, and Hassell doesn't let his fictile wail impose too much, accenting the other elements rather than taking the lead.
The two Paris recordings meanwhile are markedly different, playing further with ideas that'd soon be swept into the broader ambient genre. On 'Paris II', Hassell jams over a hushed, stuttering piano loop that works as a de-facto rhythm, and billowing synth tones that bubble across the surface like water from a hot spring. There are no drums here, it's pure texture, and it's as if Hassell is peering into the next decade - we can hear traces of Wolfgang Voigt's early Gas material, Jan Jelinek, even Oval. We can't think of a more apt gateway into Hassell's intimidating catalog.