Each Four Tet release is a reminder that the most prominent thread holding Kieran Hebden’s diverse works together is that each sounds unmistakably like a Kieran Hebden production. He is something of a shape shifter, but one that gives himself away in the selfsame movements that alter his identity. Always melodically rich, his work is a hybrid of technical virtuosity and wide-eyed wonder, almost childlike playfulness. There is a conscious throttling of the listener’s expectation. Whether he is constructing thickly melancholic atmospheres, or, at the other end of the spectrum, hyper-kinetic, eccentrically danceable tracks, Hebden manages to entice, surprise and satisfy. But satisfaction, as revealed by many a Four Tet track, can be an odd sort of thing.
In the past few years—since the release of the last proper Four Tet album, Everything Ecstatic, in 2005—Kieran Hebden has stayed busy. He has toured, released albums with Fridge and veteran jazz drummer Steve Reid (tracks from which were remixed by James Holden and Audion), done a DJ Kicks album for K7, picked up a regular DJ gig at London’s The End, and, after issuing a compendium of his remixes to date in 2006, contributed a slew of new mixes for the likes of Matthew Dear, Nathan Fake, Caribou, Thom Yorke, Explosions in the Sky, and, most recently, Born Ruffians. Through it all he has maintained the elemental beauty of his work while zigzagging from one direction to the next.
Ringer, Four Tet’s latest, is a four track mini album of a variant of techno that could only be conjured by Kieran Hebden. Gone for the most part are the surgically precise cuttings that marked much of his previous work. On display instead is space. Ringer is Four Tet working with large canvases, gigantic canvases, onto which he fuses melody and shape, rhythm and color, but in a way that equally highlights what is not there and what is. It is an album of cerebral dance music quite removed from the IDM of his past, fit for bigger rooms and more pronounced wig flipping.
“Ringer” opens the album by quickly sliding into a frantic synthesizer riff reminiscent of Delia Gonzales and Gavin Russom. Element upon element is added and an understated beat incorporated as it moves toward a crescendo of crashing drums. While the drums are pure Four Tet, it is a rare moment of abandon on an album that is notable for the way it sets up one propulsive figure after another, figures that seem to promise some sort of explosive deliverance that never comes.
The heartbeat of Ringer is the spare elegance of the bookended tracks, “Ribbons” and “Swimmer.” They lack the intimate sweetness of early Four Tet productions, evincing instead a distanced, more abstract and meditative quality not so far removed from moments on Rounds. There is a stillness to the tracks, a static character that masks itself in a frenzy of surface activity. The buzzing beginnings of “Swimmer” are a false advertisement, or, maybe better, a cause for misunderstanding. It seems to announce a journey, but the journey takes place in the shadow of movement, in the quietude of dreams. There is no huge break, no push off the edge of the cliff—just the persistence of a cast spell, magnetic in its charm and attraction.
“Wing Body Wing” closes things out on a much more familiar note, sliding across
polyrhythms into effervescent giddiness with a buoyancy that rouses a smile only to contort it with upsurges of bracing noise. It marks out the territory spanning Ringer and his previous work (along with his remix of Nathan Fake’s “You Are Here”) and as such leaves us with the question of what comes next. A trip deeper into the expansive space of techno? A return to stuttering, emotionally rich electronica? Or something all together unexpected? Something that will satisfy by surprise, to be sure.
The Field – From Here We Go Sublime
Ellen Allien and Apparat – Orchestra of Bubbles
Nathan Fake – Drowning in a Sea of Love