Graded on a Curve:
Jon Hassell,
Fourth World Vol.2: Dream Theory In Malaya

Originally released in 1981 on Editions EG, Jon Hassell’s Dream Theory in Malaya: Fourth World Volume Two was a groundbreaker in its merger of ambient, experimental, and global sounds, but as the decades unfurled it came to be inexplicably overlooked, in part due to a lack of reissues since getting placed on compact disc in the late-’80s. Well, that scenario has changed, as it’s been given a fresh LP and CD release courtesy of Glitterbeat Records’ new sub-label Tak:Til; that its often surreal yet meticulously crafted rewards are back in the bins is a fine circumstance indeed.

Regarding Jon Hassell’s early catalog, 1980’s Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics is much better known, even before it was reissued by Glitterbeat in 2014, largely because it has Brain Eno’s name on the cover. Eno plays on and mixed Vol. Two as well, but co-billing eludes him, specifically due to Hassell’s distress over his partner running with the Fourth World musical ball and spiking it directly into David Byrne’s backyard.

Hassell apparently viewed Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (’80) and the Eno/ Byrne collab My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (’81) as part of “a full-scale appropriation.” This may sound like an atmosphere of hostility, but Hassell actually contributed to Remain in Light, and as said, ol’ Bri wasn’t locked out the studio for Vol. 2; in retrospect, Hassell has said he “probably under-credited him.”

If a bit harsh at the time, Hassell’s caution over the usurping-weakening of the Fourth World, a concept expanded upon by Hassell as “a viewpoint out of which evolves guidelines for finding balances between accumulated knowledge and the conditions created by new technologies,” wasn’t exactly unjustified, as a stated goal was to imagine a musical landscape where assorted global musics, with Hassell citing Javanese, Pygmy, and Aboriginal forms as examples, had been as influential as the Euro-classical tradition.

Unsurprisingly, his results are an utterly different beast from “You Can Call Me Al.” Today the accusation of appropriation can perhaps be wielded a mite too easily, but Hassell was wise to raise an objection and safeguard against it; over 35 years later, while so many subsequent borrowings or fusions seem trite, innocuous or forced in retrospect, Dream Theory in Malaya has lost none of its allure.

Eno’s desire to work with Hassell stemmed from his two ’78 albums, but prior to cutting those discs he studied with the German avant-gardist Karlheinz Stockhausen. Subsequently, he was a contemporary of Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and Philip Glass; Hassell’s debut Vernal Equinox was released by Lovely Music Ltd. and its follow-up Earthquake Island by Tomato, both labels having issued works by Glass during this same period.

Hassell was also influenced by Miles Davis, but by Dream Theory in Malaya that connection isn’t easily discernible. Other than Vol. 1 of course, the album resists easy comparison to much of anything that transpired before, and if that sounds like an exaggeration, one only need to experience the disc’s opener “Chor Moiré.”

While its cyclical repetition can certainly be linked to Steve Reich, the piece’s prickly, smudgy veneer instead predicts the emergence of glitch electronica. Succinct at nearly two and a half minutes, it’s a striking passage of unusualness leading into “Courage,” the strangeness of which goes down comparatively easy, in part through an unceasing flow of tribal rhythms (by Eno and Walter De Maria) accompanied by long streams of Hassell’s treated trumpet drizzle.

This sets the stage for “Dream Theory,” where Hassell’s use of harmonizer produces denser layering and Michael Brook’s bass inches matters into the neighborhood of a groove. Going it alone for “Datu Bintung at Jelong,” the sonic auteur’s repeated motif on the Prophet 5 synth gets mingled with strands, flutters, and staccato bursts from his horn, the landscape driving home Dream Theory in Malaya’s significant expansion of Vol. 1’s template.

As the album’s longest selection, “Malay” is appropriately spacious and varied, utilizing pottery drums, bowl gongs, bells, recordings of birdsong, a sample of a water splash looped into rhythm, and scads of darting, wiggling, and moaning trumpet. By the end, the track has achieved a sort of surreal exotica lacking in presumptions and stereotypes to still sound fresh today.

“These Times…” brings in more nature sounds, and if there is a track here that’s representative of the ’80s New Ageist-environmental onslaught, this is it, though in Hassell and company’s hands the mood is still quite intriguing. From there, original album closer “Gift of Fire” is a beauty of bells, buzzing and interwoven beats, and the reissue bonus track “Ordinary Mind” combines rhythm with wind, crashing surf and a looped vocal undercurrent. It culminates a fascinating, wholly enjoyable album that’s shelf life should easily extend for another 35 years.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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