It’s about time Kieran Hebden got his due — just not like this.
When Hebden formed his band Fridge back in the mid-90s, little did he know that the group’s unique blend of cut-n-paste melodic experiments would actually predict a great deal of electronica going forward, forecasting the strange ways in which sampling would be manipulated in the following decades, all while touching on IDM tropes and garnering the occasional “folktronica” tag in the press. While the group released four albums over the course of five years (culminating in their undisputed masterpiece, 2001’s Happiness), the group never managed to rise much out of the realm of positive CMJ blurbs, gaining notoriety but never full-bore populist acceptance.
Yet while the group took the occasional hiatus here and there (including a six-year break after Happiness‘ release), Hebden kept experimenting away, eventually releasing material under the moniker Four Tet, which featured his percussion-heavy style frequently spliced in with his delicate guitar work. While his 1999 debut Dialogue showed promise, 2001’s Pause started hewing closer to what would become his signature sound: expansive, hushed, quietly cinematic, lush and very melodic in nature. While Pause was primarily composed on his acoustic guitar, it was 2003’s Rounds where piano and an unamplified electric guitar came into play, and everything — end-to-end — suddenly clicked. His songs were confident, evocative, sometimes downright beautiful.
This leads us to the bizarre impasse we are currently at: Rounds is being celebrated with an epic 10th Anniversary Edition, but when all the tracks remain the same and the only bonus ephemera is a merely-OK live set tacked on to second disc, you really have to wonder what the intrinsic value is that can be obtained from this when the regular version of Rounds is still widely available.
Indeed, Rounds is very much the album that helped bring Hebden into a larger spotlight, as before long he became an in-demand DJ and remixer, having released every type of DJ-related branded compilation you could imagine (LateNightTales, Fabriclive, DJ-Kicks, etc.), and having reworked tracks by everyone from Radiohead to Sia to Aphex Twin to Madvillain. During his post-Round years, he released an extensive series of collaborative albums with drummer Steve Reid before his passing in 2010, reformed Fridge to release their quite good 2007 effort The Sun, and, of course, kept releasing more great music as Four Tet, soon dropping guitars all together in favor of synths, keys, and his trademark use of skittering drums. Don’t worry about Hebden: he’s plenty busy as is.
So before we begin to debate the merits of whether this 10th Anniversary Edition of Rounds is worth your hard-earnerd cash, let’s first address the issue of the album itself. Yes, Rounds is something you should own, as it may very well be Hebden’s masterpiece. The record opens with a series of quiet punchouts before the clanging of drums emerges every eight beats, leaving a trail of quiet keys in its way, finally developing that mishmash of sound into something more conventional just before the two-minute mark. “Hands” is a very good introduction to Four Tet’s world, where everything seems to be a bit chaotic and disorganized before a clear melodic pattern comes into focus as the track stretches on. He loops his own instruments excessively, but never does it feel like Hebden is running out of ideas: he fully understands the nature of a groove, how to ride it, when to deviate from it, when to simply throw surprises at you. “She Moves She” seems a bit conventional from the onset, but when you least expect it, he’ll toss in a quiet windchime breakdown, an aggressive-sounding burst of static-fuzz that you soon realize has been looped into the main melody — it’s all greatly compelling stuff.
Yet Hebden’s greatest strength as a musician is his insanely careful eye for detail. While all of his songs are built upon simple melodic structures, it’s easy for a listener to simply gloss over the numerous little bits — some of them only lasting more than a quarter-second — that he crams into every detail. The funky bassline of “As Serious As Your Life” makes for one of his most upbeat tracks, but a close inspection of the details reveals more: harpsichord on the side, the cymbal hits have actually been isolated almost exclusively to the left channel stream, the melodic pads hidden quietly underneath, the reversed guitar work that comes in quietly right before any given set of 16 bars comes to an end — it would sound chaotic and overstuffed in the hands of anyone else, but sound completely fluid and natural under Hebden’s direction.
While virtually all of Hebden’s albums post-Dialogue are great (and despite the uneven nature of Everything Ecstatic, the moments that work are truly incredible), but Rounds is an end-to-end burner, as there isn’t a weak track in the bunch. The moody “And They All Looked Broken Hearted” starts out ominous, but the quiet shamisen work brought in part way through buoys the track from falling too far down in mood, while the closing “Slow Jam” offers a structure that’s more conventional in achieving emotional catharsis. The fiery “Spirit Fingers” is all uptempo build up with no climax, and “Unspoken” may very well be the closest thing the kids these days have to a trip-hop track in a post trip-hop age. It is a rewarding, rich album that holds up well after multiple listens. Perhaps what’s best about the album is that despite its release 10 years ago, it sounds just as fresh then as it does today, completely fitting in with our current musical landscape without missing a beat. Perhaps that compliment is more of a critique on the state of music today than it is on Hebden’s forward-thinking abilities, but no matter which way you slice it, Rounds is slowly building up its goodwill for “classic album” status without having to do much aside from just existing.
To promote the album upon its release, EPs and singles were released, but for the 10th Anniversary Edition of Rounds, Domino appears to have neglected all of that in lieu of a recording of Hebden performing live. Most times, material for anniversary releases is given to rarities, demos, period-specific tracks of that nature, and for good reason: they help broaden our insight into the creation and context of the album in question. An ambient static piece like “I’ve Got Viking in Me” certainly wouldn’t have fit in Rounds context, but it remains a fascinating insight into Hebden’s process, and would possibly work even better on his 2012 Pink compilation than it would here, but remains intriguing regardless. There were also Icarus remixes, the Jay Dee remix of “As Serious As Your Life”, the stray My Angel Rocks Back and Forth EP track “All the Chimers”, and more.
Instead, we are given to a live set that Hebden did in Copenhagen. Through it, he runs through a majority of Rounds material, incorporating the occasional Pause track in there just because. Many of these tracks are given extended edits, heavy on percussion breaks, none of it ultimately all that compelling. The best track from the whole event is probably his caffeinated take on “Spirit Fingers”, where it’s given a more prominent, uptempo backbeat to go along with a wildly fluctuating static synth line that twists and contorts like a mosquito in thunderstorm near the end. While some fans may be intrigued by his 16-minute megamix of tracks near the end (“Hands” going into Pause‘s “No More Mosquitoes” into Dialogue‘s “Calamine” then back to Pause for “Tangle”), this quiet Copenhagen concert doesn’t offer much insight into Hebden’s process, nor does it yield many melodic rewards. Ultimately, it’s a disappointing addition to this re-release simple because it’s so blasé.
When the original CMJ review of Rounds came out, it referred to how Four Tet’s music was akin to that of “lightning zen”, a Buddhist notion that sometimes moments of true insight and clarity can come not after hours of meditating but after the right moment strikes you at the right time. In truth, this was a very apt summary of Hebden’s abilities, as he can sometimes discover microcosms of pure musical beauty in the most unexpected places, establishing simple melodic forms before distorting them and playing off our expectations of them. He’s not an avant-garde wizard or someone playing out in purely experiment realms, no. Hebden has the gifts of a pure pop musician who happens to manifest his talent in elongated, looping, and ever-shifting forms, and as each subsequent album he’s released has proved, he’s constantly evolving what his “sound” is and pushing himself into new, fascinating territories. Rounds may very well be his masterpiece, but when it comes to celebrating that achievement, it certainly deserves a better treatment than this.