Four Tet, formally known as Kieran Hebden from London, is inspired by Timbaland. He also adores the quintessential soul sound of The Velvelettes’ Needle in a Haystack and cites Universal Sounds of America, a Soul Jazz compilation, as his most profoundly influential album. Though Hebden cherishes “pop music that does not rely on nostalgia”, he would like his music to be at once timeless and only possible in its zeitgeist. Such is the task of an electronic musician working with archaic technology and instruments and one who, two years ago, found a musical compliment in jazz drummer Steve Reid.
With Steve Reid and his rotating ensemble Hebden, as producer and electronic tinker-er, indulges his avant-garde flare. What he does to enhance and texture the ensemble’s jazz, specifically on Daxaar, is akin to Jackson Pollock throwing cigarette butts, screws, sand, and other detritus into his paintings to create a new visceral definition of the medium. Like Pollock, layering so many recognizable yet aesthetically foreign sounds leads to repeated discoveries and new interpretations of Hebden’s work. And because Hebden is no interloper, but rather a musical mediator, pushing and pulling sounds and ideas, their colluded sounds are distinctly indicative of both electronica and jazz.
Whether or not Hebden is a harbinger like Pollock could be argued to death. What remains is the tangible truth behind this self-employed Londoner: he is tactile, unconventional, exciting, relentless, and becoming the UK’s next production guru. All this genre bending finds him working independently again, though only long enough to record Ringer, a “mini” album.
The title track, “Ringer”, exemplifies the idiosyncrasies that make Hebden so intriguing. It begins with the sound of an intergalactic cicada and quickly is overtaken by a whitewash of bright synths and arpeggiating 80’s baritone. The sprightly synthesizer samples—a constant theme in Hebden’s music since Everything Ecstatic—are an amalgamation of a squealing pig, nails on a chalkboard, Odysseus’ sirens, and a tea kettle whistle all airbrushed into one divine but stuttering choir. After two minutes a thumping bass rhythm on each beat grounds one into his cosmic soundscape. Similar to Dabronxxar and other works Hebden drops accidental sounds that burp, fizzle, quibble, and equivocate in contrast to the underlying beats, which continue bobbing and weaving in a smooth quilted cadence.
At the seven-minute mark we’re brought back to the track’s bread and butter beat and we anticipate, incorrectly, an imminent climax. Instead a battery of drums crashes in, punctuating the pulsating sound but also reinvigorating it. In fact, this is the climax. But it’s not anticlimactic per se. The nuances of Hebden’s searing highs, crisscrossing mids, and beating lows coalesce making the track tick and, thus, the impending drums amplify the piece to its highpoint.
An ominous twinkle here, warm lines bubbling to the surface there, and a pronounced bass drum everywhere. Besides being the second track, “Ribbons” is entirely aquatic—metaphorically of course. It builds with more choric gases trapped near the ocean floor, rising until they break the surface, and eventually moves to undulating chords. When drums enter they provide urgency the carbonated keyboard lines can’t, while filtered lines of neon-colored notes soon trickle upon the surface like a watery sprinkle. Ostensibly it sounds like a lot of movement but the apparent atrophic vibe is an illusion. Internally the track coagulates, so what seems like a loose blob of throbbing notes solidifies into a forceful beat and melody. A dub-like outro that showcases the intricate drum line ends the track.
Surprisingly less aquatic sounding than “Ribbons”, “Swimmer” is instead vast and expansive. Whimsical wind chimes meander in the background and a reverberating nasally drone sounds like a tornado siren in Hebden’s sonic tableau. The sweeping dry plain of sound is interspersed only by the shuffle of tumbleweed or swaying grain—here, percolating percussion.
“Wing Body Wing”, the most experimental of the “four-tet” of tracks, emerges from a flurry of knocks, taps, snaps and beats. Before one realizes it a third of the track is complete, and only now are any melodic patterns introduced. The melody ascends carefully with each note shaped such that it disappears before you can define it. And it drips along with periodic interjections, e.g. violent beeps, or simply tease what isn’t to come. Instead the mixes die out individually until what remains is a dub creation, not unlike the ending of “Ribbons”.
That Hebden has been spinning more techno and trance while gigging the London club scene explains some of the minimalist sounds, but wistful unwonted melodies and enthralling beats are resounding and dominate the album. His jazz residency has fine-tuned his ear for the subtle yet beautifully complex mannerisms, melodies, and polyrhythms that flourish on Ringer, which, more than anything, helps us pick Hebden’s thoughts for clues on his next development. He’s done the folktronica, made a prudently sanguine album in Everything Ecstatic, he’s blown our expectations with a fruitful and unique collaboration with Reid, and applied his multifarious mix to further create a sound. What follows?