t seems unfair to refer to Four Tet as a side-project now the moniker has seemingly overtaken Fridge as Kieran Hebden’s primary musical venture, certainly in the minds of the general music-consuming public and mainstream music press. Perhaps the spirit of collaboration inherent in Fridge impels the group to lean towards more difficult sonic experimentation, the three members pushing each other wilfully into directions each individual may not have pursued alone, and which certainly aren’t geared towards mass consumption. The results can be fascinating, boundary-less works such as 1998’s sprawling Semaphore, or they can be inconsistent and trying like 2001’s occasionally beautiful but more often dull Happiness, less a coherent album than a series of semi-successful musical explorations disguised as a record.
Hebden’s solo work continues to garner praise and forge ahead even as his day-job stutters down dead-ends and unappealing cul-de-sacs. Four Tet is less about work and more about play, allowing Hebden’s personality to emerge much more effectively than in the overt intellectualisations of Fridge. 99’s impossible to find Dialogue played with laptop jazz, somehow successfully combining the mechanised, artificial rigidity of computer technology with the spontaneity of our most freely expressionist and human musical form. In 2001 Hebden perfected what neologists might term ‘folktronica’ on Pause, a late summer’s melange of delicate found-sound sonics and charmingly recontextualised acoustic melodies and beats. Hebden’s third album as Four Tet, Rounds, neither breaks with form nor retreads ground which should be left fallow; it is more of the same, but ‘the same’ for Four Tet is perpetual evolution and motion. We know from the off that this is Hebden’s work as he moves within the same landscape, the same musical topography; it’s his precise location and activity which alter. “Hands” starts the album with a baffled heartbeat and is familiarly formless; distant chimes join a confluence of independent sounds held together by peals of bass which form a steady foundation. Any sound repeated to a rhythm becomes music; melodies emerge from scraps of noise which become recognizable, melodies formed without the constraints of discernable instrumentation or codified rules governing context and destination.
There is the temptation with electronica, as with jazz and dub, to become immersed within its folds and endless permutations, to become so familiar and comfortable with its sonic landscape and how different artists traverse that landscape that it becomes difficult to form value judgements and qualitative assessments of the music’s worth on any objective level. Four Tet, like Susumu Yokota or Manitoba, has nothing to say; the point is that this nothingness is expressed beautifully in ways that reveal further nuances of nothingness the more familiar they become. “She Moves She” has no point as such, no climax or manifesto other than to explore itself. It does a cool jerk, skittish but precise energy and a satisfying kick drum slam redolent of The Neptunes of all people, while head-shaking snatches of interference juxtapose minimally decorative and delicate plucked guitar strings. Is this symbiosis of the human and the mechanical? “My Angel Rocks Back And Forth” uses buzz-thump-clicks and autoharps to place angels deep within machines, opening up the potential of cybernetic systems by taking the key concepts and using them as a basis for the creation of art and culture. Laptronica is the art of the perfectionist, but like Manitoba, Four Tet is an imperfectionist, a manipulator of precision chaos and chance; the sense of unpredictability that this creates gives the music its humanity, quality and emotional resonance. Hebden is a steersman, not a dictator, even though it’s his hand that places and defines every aspect of this music.
Rounds’ centrepiece is the nine-minute “Unspoken”, and sees Hebden tying up folk, jazz and hip hop in his laptop’s net. Eno-esque treatments weave through the background as a simple and touching piano motif leads the track through three minutes of building, all unified by a proper boom-bip beat. Guitars, scree, backwards phrasing and freeform brass slowly layer over one another as the summit is approached, never hurried but still powerful, momentum over velocity; like Up In Flames this is proof that electronica doesn’t have to be cold or passionless, that it’s freedom from the constraints of trad song structure and rock history doesn’t necessitate a lack of involvement from the listener. You may not get to sing along, but this is not ambient music; it is immersive and involving. A land without codified rules but with individual responsibility; this is simply a great record of beautiful music and it doesn’t need constraints from verses and choruses and the urge to be a ‘song’. The nearest we get to rock here is the riff that runs through “As Serious As Your Life”, and even that is quickly subverted with beats, textures and jolting repositioning forcing you to recontextualise the purpose of the sound as well as the sound itself.
Where I work people come to listen to jazz on headphones in little brown booths and I always say that it’s an artificial listening experience, but one needs to ask what is a natural listening experience? When and how does this music get consumed and what is its purpose? What is art and who is a genius? Where is the line drawn between circus games and lasting quality, if it is a line that can be drawn at all? So far I’ve listened to this album on headphones at night and whilst watching Italian football, in the office background, and intently, cross-legged on the floor in my music room, making notes and slowly increasing the volume until I can no longer hear the phone ring or the doorbell chime; is that the natural way to listen to a record, hermetically sealed from the outside? This is how beautiful the world is and we didn’t even notice, because we were so busy looking for the purpose and the presence that we failed to notice how great the indifference and the absence are. I always found myself in those in-between moments, the bits nobody else noticed, the incidentals and the segues, and that’s what this is about. “Slow Jam” is five minutes of in-between moments, a muffle and a woman’s voice speaking without words, and then this meandering guitar line leading you forwards and upwards at a slight incline towards somewhere you’ve never been before. It never reaches the destination; but that’s not the important thing, the reason for travelling is the journey. A dog’s toy squeaks, the familiar is made wonderful and the everyday sublime. What more is there to say? Not much; Rounds is great.