Spirit Fingers: Four Tet’s Rounds at 20

Looking back on the sonic pointilism of Kieran Hebden’s studio masterwork

Kieran Hebden of Four Tet (Image: Wikipedia)

Dance culture and rock music had been circling around each other for at least a decade when Four Tet released his seminal 2003 third album, Rounds, casting the dalliance in a different light.

In America the emergence of electronic dance music mirrored that of the No Depression/Americana movement, beginning in the eighties, moving beyond the underground onto the radio in the mid-to-late nineties before coming into its own after the millennium. 

Rounds was a moment when the two styles briefly kissed, with Four Tet seamlessly blending a laconic, acoustic and found-sound aesthetic with a tackle box of warm samples, pulsing rhythms and thrumming breakbeats in a manner that suggests 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi. Like that groundbreaking visual documentary, Four Tet captures this tension between organic and mechanistic, floating in a gentle wash of sound with the scope and sweep of narrative. 

The album wasn’t way Four Tet auteur Kieran Hebden’s first rodeo. Not only had he released two prior Four Tet albums exploring this dynamic, including his overlooked 2001 Domino Records debut, Pause, but had released four albums with British instrumental post-rock band Fridge, honing his ability to craft instrumental music with momentum and dramatic tension. 

Four Tet Rounds, Domino Records 2003

While Rounds is generally quiet and introspective, the sampled opposition of elements and their passage through the piece can be alternately beautiful or jarring. The sounds are heavily processed, diced and reconfigured, turning harps into bass guitars, reprising melody lines backwards, and rendering familiar sounds all but indistinguishable, but with a subtlety and nuance that doesn’t call attention to itself. Breakbeats largely drive the tunes, inhabiting the upper register and creating interesting effects such as the processed banjo(?) sample of “She Moves She” which sort of drives that track’s low-end.

Influenced by hip-hop, krautrock and Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda, Hebden told me in a 2005 interview that he wanted the tones to mutate and change. “As you listen to it, it evolves into something different. I quite like the idea of slightly confusing people as to what they’re hearing. I like to change people’s perceptions of what’s possible.”

It’s hard to talk about Rounds without mentioning the textures. It mostly soaks in a chillwave pool that’s subdued on the surface, but beneath it islike old Max Headroom: It’s glitchy and odd, those breaks in symmetry adding to the texture, as if your refrigerator briefly hiccupped before returning to its regularly appointed hum. “Wait, WTF was that?” And even if the melody, rhythm lines are like gentle waves, there’s plenty of activity just beyond the surface, little pops, tinkling vibes, guitar Frippery that walks on, maybe repeats once or twice than exits, replaced by a new sonic character in a similar role. It’s hypnotic.

The opening track “Hands” kicks things off wonderfully with a beating heart that transforms into a growing orchestral line as instruments briefly hop onto the melody and back off, with the chaotic air of that few moments before a concert begins when musicians autonomously tune/test their instruments, over an intermittent R&B hook that gradually finds its groove before slowly dissipating into the distance. 

The arguably centerpiece, “My Angel Rocks Back and Forth” is underpinned by a sample that sounds like a board being dragged across the sand, counterpointing a trilling music box melody that sort of drifts away like day fading into twilight. However it’s also possible to argue in favor of nine-and-a-half minute, piano-fueled track “Unspoken,” whose jazzy rhythmic breaks shade and color a repeated piano-sample, expressing the emotion through the depth and manner in which the samples layer onto the melody. The number swells evocatively then backs off as sounds enter from both sides like competing thoughts and complicating impulses, darkening the windshield before returning to the original figure and receding into the night. It’s an epic effort and despite the length is the most frequently played album track per Spotify.


VIDEO: Four Tet “She Moves She”

All the major tracks are about five or more minutes, but so inventive and changing that boredom’s never so much of a threat as the music slipping into the background like the pastoral soundtrack it longs to be. It has the easygoing mannerisms of new age music without ever feeling that pre-digested and heavily chewed. Plus, there’s so much going on that it’s very easy to become distracted by this sound or that and suddenly the song is over. 

So it’s hard to deny the sense of Rounds being aural wallpaper. Yet it’s as though the artist isn’t hack, but rather Georges Suerat. Hebden’s sort of recreated his pointilism musically, fashioning a collage of samples that together affect a quiet lullaby that beneath the surface teems with activity, nuance and modulating change as if echoing the nature and cycle of life.


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