It All Breaks Down
I can remember vividly an afternoon back in the spring of last year when I stepped forlornly into the now defunct Imperial Records store, out of a spitting chill wind and into a feeling of sanctuary; Kieran Hebden’s Rounds album suffusing the very air via the tannoy system. I was embittered, unemployed, soaked, freezing and hungry; furthermore, someone had recently stolen my bicycle and something truly catastrophic had happened to my girlfriend. You could have used my soul to mould icicles, providing those icicles were hanging from a gutter grating into a sewer—yet within moments I felt absolved and accepted, safe. To paraphrase Kate Bush, Four Tet’s music made it all go… away. I was near tears with gratitude.
The purity and honesty of that record run deep throughout his output: on debut album Dialogue, his most understated and formal his take on electronic jazz, on the more scattershot grab bag of goodies that was Pause and above all on Happiness, the classic post-rock album recorded as part of trio Fridge that provided exactly what it said on the tin. Rounds, his third solo album, heralded his breakthrough into clothes shop ubiquity whilst showcasing a more complete, and indeed replete, sound; brimming with an emotional glow that was lovely and wistful but remained kinetic due to satisfyingly plump hip-hop percussion tugging at, and chugging through, its shimmering lullaby melodies. Jay Dee liked the album so much he delivered a pimped-out remix of “As Serious As Your Life Is” for a single, adding his name to a list of Hebden collaborators and remixees that was already a riotously varied cornucopia of talent: Pole, Aphex Twin, Badly Drawn Boy, Beth Orton, Max Beasley of Rothko, Koushik, Bonobo, Radiohead and Jay-Z…
Yet the record also cemented him in the public eye as one of the lodestones of the slightly effete pastoralism bearing the name tag “folktronica”. Being an musician driven by the need to develop, Hebden decided to fight his way forward by making a new album in a mere two months, in between working on the forthcoming fifth Fridge album and collaborating with Steve Reid (scarily accomplished drummer of James Brown, Fela Kuti and Sun Ra fame). If we size up the competition in experimentalist hip-hop personality land, Bryan “Boom Bip” Hollon is currently joining the dots between krautrock and Debussy, Guillermo Scott “Prefuse of a million monikers” Herren is taking Fitzgerald’s blue sails out over radio waves on his most free-flowing album yet, and Dan Snaith (formerly Manitoba, now Caribou) has gone… well, the technical term is probably “batshit”, but it seems to involve the Beach Boys riding a buggy around a landscape composed of Casio calculators and crayola sketches. On crack. Into these strange and, for the most part, increasingly refined waters, the man who called his first single “ThirtySixTwentyFive” on account of its length has decided to let off a short, sharp depthcharge with the title Everything Ecstatic. Hebden has responded as would any hip-hop artist worth his salt to allegations of going soft: he has brought the raw.
Thus it is that opener “A Joy” cascades out of toppling percussion into a beserk washing machine swell of a grimey bassline that could scare acid house ravers shitless. In drops the break and up flash the cymbals, his little treble melodies only gliding in at about 1:20, strewn like pennets over the rampaging carnage below. With thirty seconds of the three minutes remaining, Hebden drops everything out and cuts in the aural equivalent of sticking your fingers in a socket; white noise screaming out of the speakers, only to fatten out with percussion rolls and the (almost inaudible) return of the bass. This combative squall of energy is instantly recognisable to anyone who caught his 23-minute live version of “As Serious As Your Life”, which sounded like Richard D. James having a really bad day—an electrifying call to get the FUCK up because Four Tet now says so, having discovered a passion for unpredictable, wild performance that reunites him with his love of Alice Coltrane’s free jazz, this time primed as an assault weapon.
Perhaps logically, then, the second track completely wrongfoots your expectations, serving up a docilely coasting break topped off with delirious chipmunk vocals (you’d say Kanye, except Blockhead got there first on the “Garbage” beat, suckers). Well, until the track rips itself apart in percussive flurries and ends up halfway between a drum solo and random beams of radio noise, anyway—before sliding back into the happy hip-hop groove once more, aided by jingling vibraphonics and glitch cuts. Of course, even on Rounds there had been signs of dissonance and distortion setting off the calm melodics, but what was heckling has morphed into full-scale infitada, every instrumental component being wrenched apart, inverted and kicked before being allowed to resume its former place… and all this while the motor’s running. You get a sense that, just as Scott Herren rips his beats into fragments not to flaunt his virtuoso handling of the MPC but to manifest a more intricate, intimate sense of rhythm within the percussion itself, so Hebden is not merely being joyously anarchic; rather he is giving the listener a glimpse at the writhing sea of potential sounds concealed within even the most superficially mundane recording, rerouting the glistening, unpredictable results back into the “end” product to add dynamism. It has been claimed that neither houses nor paintings are ever finished, but merely pause at interesting places; Hebden seems enthralled by the possibilities of making an endlessly evolving feedback loop between raw noise and “finished” sound.
Powering this potentially haphazard hive of sounds are ferociously dirty, horrendously agile drums that, now more than ever, are the focus of Hebden’s tracks. It’s impossible to tell whether the scrambled dervishry on hand here is the result of Reid samples, a friend’s new drum machine that Hebden allegedly only experimented with for about two hours, or some rampant combination of the two. At any rate, they fire through “Sun Drums and Soil”, this album’s “Unspoken”, with ever-increasing propulsive force, the latter’s magic carpet ride ramped and compressed into speeding in a trance down some futuristic highway in the wrong direction, dodging the glaring horns of incoming traffic; tension builds up through the groove until the final eruption of free jazz sax off the top of the mix, like flares being tossed off a speeding juggernaught’s rig, is giddying in its release. Perhaps the album’s finest moment, “Sun Drums and Soil” is a euphoric nightmare of a track that funnels the spiritual intensity of Hebden’s musical influences and vision into a cathartic scream of ecstasy.
There are judiciously placed quieter moments to balance the rushes, such as the short “Clouding”, which verges on musique concrete, or “And Then Patterns”, the track here closest to Rounds’ modus operandi, which is to say drifting cycles of loveliness that would lend themselves very well to soundtracking making out (although here they’re busy subtly dissolving into one other). Then there’s “High Fives”, which pits an RZA-ish sombre gong of a beat against naive vibraphone melodies whilst the fluid sonic snakes of Hebden “trying to scratch” slide lithely around them, and “Turtle Turtle Up”—apparently a thumb wrestling game in Taiwan—which deconstructs the enervating Hong Kong traffic light loop into a pulsing bassline for more chiming melodies to glimmer over. Penultimately comes “Sleep, Eat Food, Have Visions”, the seven-plus minute pendent to “Sun Drums and Oil” that bleeps along squidgily for about half its length before being suddenly launched into some jittery insectile sonar equivalent of hyperspace, staggered waves of remorseless percussion rippling past like a giant alien centipede’s armour plating. Apparently arranged according to visual aesthetics by Hebden whilst he was busy doing something else, it’s the only track here that comes off as something of a dead-end; for all its driving intensity, it lacks a melodic core to truly engage the listener.
Everything Ecstatic closes with “You Were There With Me”, an eerie collage of what might be wind chimes, or perhaps tiny gongs being struck by raindrops, their ringing lost in a misty haze. The gradual emergence of a damped beat feels initally threatening but soon supplies comfort (and an explanation of the lonely track’s title) in the face of this spooky irregular rustling, a mother’s heartbeat lending familiar context to the shining unknown. With a little wrapping up I could make this into a neat little analogy for Hebden’s sonic foraging into the no man’s land between order and chaos, but that would be counter to his rough doctrine of release. At just over 40 minutes, this is his best flowing album to date, his most demanding, most infuriating, most invigorating and most intense. A few caveats: even at its most subdued and lovely, this is restless rather than restful, and where past recordings had a nigh osmotic ability to get under the skin, this one is a more stubborn beastie that will require a little wrestling.
Bjork has famously claimed that if electronic music lacks soul, it is because no-one put it there. How the majority of Rounds’ audience will take Four Tet’s new direction, I’m not entirely sure, but of Kieran Hebden—renegade, weirdo, wunderkind—I can say this with certainty: above all else, he uses his laptop less like an instrument and more like a window to his heart. Come in from the cold.