“A remarkable, visionary musical fusion”: a reissue of the Hassell-Eno summit Fourth World Volume 1: Possible Musics sounds as fresh and original now as it did when it was originally released three decades ago.
BY JASON GROSS
One of the many amazing things about this 1980 mash-up of modern classical, World music (with some rock sensibility thrown in) is that almost 35 years after the fact, it still sounds fresh, original and still somewhat strange. That’s thanks to trumpeter/composer Hassell who had perfected this unique culture clash on this third album of his with some help from a certain noted producer.
JH had an impressive pedigree which included studying with Stockhausen, recording with Terry Riley and playing in La Monte Young’s band (which previous included Riley and John Cale). 1977’s Vernal Equinox was a warm-up of the 4th World hybrid (1st world meets 3rd world music) that Hassell was brewing and caught the attention of Brian Eno, who had made NYC his home at the time while he was producing new wave stalwarts like Devo, Talking Heads. After ’78’s Earthquake Island where JH tried to duplicate the jazz/rock/Brazil fusion of Weather Report (with some of its ex-members), Eno approached Hassell after one of his concerts to propose a collaboration. This would prove a mixed blessing for Hassell—while the association with the former Roxy Music member and ambient pioneer would raise the profile of his own name, he would also be sensitive to the fact that Eno’s name would overshadow himself in his own work.
But the end results were nothing short of magical. Following up on the promise of Vernal Equinox, Fourth World Volume 1: Possible Musics was the full blooming of Hassell’s wonderfully odd vision of melding together cultures, sensibilities and music styles. It’s just recently been reissued by Germany’s Glitterbeat label (and distributed by Forced Exposure), which has been busy of late releasing albums by a number of prominent African or Afro-rock artists, among them guitarist Samba Toure, singer Aziza Brahim, London’s eclectic Fofoula and multi-continent collective Dirtmusic.
Running his trumpet through an effects device called the harmonizer which created a chorus of horn voices and assorted delay effects, JH turned his horn into a siren call, a breathy whisper escaping from his mouth and a shrill shout, many time all within the same song. The wide range of incredible, ululating tones that Hassell was able to create was a tribute to singer Prandit Pran Nath, who he studied under. Backed by Eno’s dreamy wash of synthesizers, the music had the minimalist bend of Riley’s early work and at times sounded like a distant cousin to new age music but with a sinister and other-worldly tone to it (which made sense since Hassell was trying to create some new here).
Also, thanks to the stately, menacing percussion of Nana Vasconcelos and Ayib Dieng, Fourth World also had an African flavor to it, albeit a sound that had more of a connection to traditional African music and not the then-current crop of Afro-pop like Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade that was starting to make its mark.
The five tracks on the first half (aka side one) seem like different destinations of a journey. “Chemistry” begins low-key enough with a plunking bass over the subtle hand drums but soon, Hassell’s horn comes screaming in to break the mood and command it for almost seven minutes.
From there, we’re taken to the gorgeous, floating sound-scape of “Delta Rain Dream” and then to the clapping rhythms of the Miles-like “Griot (Over “Contagious Magic”)” and the stop-start sections of the majestic “Ba-Benzélé” before stopping in a fever dream of insects and jungle animals that buzz around Eno’s keyboards and JH’s trumpet on “Rising Thermal 14° 16′ N; 32° 28′ E.” The second half (aka side two) is taken up by 21 and a half minutes of the amazing “Charm (Over “Burundi Cloud”).” Backed by the distant thump of Vasconcelos and Dieng and the eerie electronic background by Eno, Hassell darts in and out of the mix, sometimes quietly, sometimes fiercely and without warning, leading us through an extended, mysterious travelogue, seeming like we’re in the middle of an arty horror movie at times or a trip through a sonic jungle.
After the album’s forty-five minutes, you feel as if you’ve gone somewhere unique and may feel a little drained but somewhat refreshed for the experience and yet a little let down that it’s ended.
Below: David Byrne is pictured with Eno and Hassell (Eno actually tweeted this photo recently)
Hassell would go on to expand and tweak the Fourth World concept in the ‘80s on Dream Theory in Malaya (aka ‘Fourth World vol. 2’), Aka-Darbari-Java / Magic Realism and Power Spot before delving into sampled music and hip-hop beats in the ‘90s and quieter, more contemplative music in the new millennium while Eno would take occasional forays back into his ambient/pop hybirds and go on to bigger paychecks with U2 and Coldplay. But it was this meeting of the minds that represented not only a peak for both artists but also a precursor to the ‘World Music’ craze which Peter Gabriel (who would later work with Hassell) and Paul Simon (who would later work with Eno) would stir up in the mid ‘80s and in both cases, net the artists substantial paychecks. Hassell didn’t break into the big time but did get to work with Ani DiFranco, David Sylvian, Ry Cooder, k.d. lang and Flea among others and find fans in the form of Bono, Pete Townshend and Bjork.
This vital reissue which cleans up the sound considerably (which is a big deal since sonics are what make it so special) is a great place to find out why they’re boosters and experience an album that’s a remarkable, visionary musical fusion.
Below: Hassell and Eno today.