The Anniversary

Rounds Turns 20


This past February, oft-meme’d American dubstep pioneer Sonny Moore (aka Skrillex) rebranded and dropped two “serious” albums, Quest For Fire and Don’t Get Too Close. He parted ways with his infamous one-side-shaved haircut and started collaborating with respected artists including 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady and avant-garde percussionist Eli Keszler. He spent release week hyping the record in the heart of Manhattan, broadcasting a livestream from Times Square hosted by lauded online station The Lot Radio before headlining Madison Square Garden. Moore packed the house at both events, performing in front of seas of moshing fans. At his side throughout these promotional experiences were dorky button pusher-turned-popstar Fred again.. and English IDM veteran Kieran Hebden. (The crew immediately became so iconic that, when Frank Ocean abandoned his spot headlining Coachella’s second weekend, the aforementioned trio snagged the festival’s coveted final slot.)

Each musician in that crew has enjoyed a wildly successful run in electronic music, but they all serve up very different strains of groundbreaking noise. However, their sonic differences (and maybe some major label funding) didn’t seem to stop them from quickly getting chummy. The DJs spent the early portion of the Skrillex album cycle posting prank videos on Instagram and jumping around on stage waving air guns — seemingly taking cues from the HBO Entourage playbook. At 45 years old, it was fairly heartwarming to observe Hebden awkwardly go along with the shenanigans of his spiritual proteges, but – when taking his roots into account – also more than a little bizarre.

Put bluntly, Hebden is a lifer. His run as a left-field innovator started when he was a teenager living in the wealthy London suburb Putnam, playing guitar and manipulating samples in the instrumental post-rock band Fridge. Around the time that act put out its debut album, Ceefax, in 1997, Hebden launched his career as a producer. He quickly amassed a handful of genre-spanning singles under the monikers 4T Recordings and, later, Four Tet. It only took a few years for him to build up a strange catalog of releases – including the first Four Tet full-length Dialogue – which touched on everything from jazz to club to hip hop. Four Tet started to gain even more momentum in 1999 when Warp Records backed a skittering remix of the Aphex Twin cut “Untitled.” By the time Hebden released his sophomore solo album, Pause, in 2001, he had already signed to powerful indie imprint Domino.

Those early Four Tet endeavors are an intriguing rabbithole to explore. They are certainly challenging and enigmatic, but never quite seem to inhabit the same aural universe. One segment of a track will play like a ’60s John Coltrane cut, right before things abruptly pivot into brash rock jamming. The material is a strong testament to Hebden’s dexterity in the studio, but it can be difficult to latch onto at times as well. It wasn’t until 2003, when Hebden dropped his third album Rounds – 20 years ago this Friday – that his identity as Four Tet started to feel truly developed.

Hebden actively sensed that his work as Four Tet could be hard to mesh with, and he strived to make a collection of tracks that evoked influences like Jim O’Rourke and Timbaland. He patiently brought Rounds to life over the course of almost a year in the front room of his London apartment. “I wanted making music to be a part of my day-to-day life, the same as eating and sleeping. I’ve never been the sort of person to go and spend 10 hours in the studio every day. [The recording] is happening all the time. I was so committed to the idea when I was doing Rounds that music was something that should be going on alongside life all the time,” Hebden told Colin Joyce in a 2013 retrospective on the album for Spin. He would occasionally slip away from those introverted sessions to tour the world with exalted acts like Radiohead, but for the most part he spent that year grinding alone. The end result of his meticulous labor is fairly melancholic, but Rounds still radiates a quiet euphoria that reflects the excitement Hebden surely felt while navigating the lifestyle of an emerging legend.

The majority of Rounds was composed and arranged on a desktop computer using largely uncleared vinyl samples that Hebden had collected while buying LPs on tour. (The only organic sound on the album is live guitar, played on closer “Slow Jam.”) The album’s sound is naturalistic, but his process largely remained tethered to the blue-lit limitations of screen-based production. Hebden’s ability to offset organic textures and cutting-edge techniques quickly had many critics using the term “folktronica” as a descriptor for his sound. When asked about his relationship with this genre tag, Hebden has cited Joni Mitchell’s Blue as a key source of inspiration for the album. Hebden later famously collaborated with artists like Thom Yorke and former schoolmate Burial. But looking back two decades later, his early 2000s output is more akin to the music of Animal Collective and the Books than the work of those aforementioned peers.

“Freely moving in and out of cycles, able to coalesce or evanesce in a heartbeat, straight up and down, or else banging about like a toddler on the pot shelf, Rounds funnels every element through the drum, which always remains at the forefront of the mix,” Andy Beta wrote in a Best New Music-anointing Pitchfork review of the record. The drum sequencing on Rounds is certainly stunning, but this takeaway doesn’t quite feel right. If anything the most affecting moments on the record emanate from heavenly melodies generated from gossamer harp- koto-like instruments. The album opens with cymbal rolls and piano glissandos that emerge from cardiorespiratory thumps on “Hands,” before a shuffling beat comes in and things start to sound like a swaggering MF DOOM instrumental. (Fittingly, Hebden went on to remix material from Madvillain and produced the solid 2021 Madlib record Sound Ancestors.) “My Angel Rocks Back And Forth” underlines classical melodies with a half-time groove. “And They All Look Broken Hearted” is withdrawn and swinging, like J Dilla slicing up a prime Dorothy Ashby outtake.

The stylings on Rounds aren’t all languid downtempo atmospheres, though. Right as things are starting to seem consistent, Hebden will throw a curveball by working spunky dissonance into the fold. “In a lot of ways that was the illusion I wanted to create. [Rounds] puts you in these comfort zones of natural sounds and then something would happen that wouldn’t fit with that at all,” he said in that same interview with Spin. “As Serious As Your Life” is dry and jagged, playing like a bunch of robot high schoolers trying their hand at a Meters cover. The palette on “Spirit Fingers” is certainly pretty, but the track’s restless composition style recalls an avalanche tumbling down the side of a mountain. The most gripping disruption arrives on the exceptional track “She Moves She,” which opens with an odd-metered trip-hop groove and the slinky sound of bending stringwork. Around the minute and a half mark, Hebden introduces rapidfire sample chops that overtake the bliss and pivot things into hectic terrain. Of all the tracks in the Four Tet catalog, I’ve spent the most time with that one over the years. Something about the way the ugliness and serenity seamlessly weave together is unlike any other work of music I’ve heard.

A lot has changed for Hebden in the years since Rounds subtly shifted the definition of what dance music can represent. He kept his sound wonderfully wonky on mid-career records like 2005’s Everything Ecstatic and 2010’s There Is Love In You. But things took a turn for the Coachella-friendly on 2012’s taut, new-agey Pink. Hebden still releases plenty of experimental-leaning compositions, and he recently hinted at a return to his folktronica roots by teasing upcoming music with cosmic Americana guitarist William Tyler. But over the last 11 years those have started to land under more lowkey aliases like Percussions and the impossible-to-search ⣎⡇ꉺლ༽இ•̛)ྀ◞ ༎ຶ ༽ৣৢ؞ৢ؞ؖ ꉺლ. In the context of mainstream electronic music, Four Tet’s late-era projects are still about as good as it gets, and he’s managed to make god-only-knows-how-much-money off of them without ever really coming across as a sellout. (Hell, unlike many legacy DJs of his caliber he’s never even dropped an NFT!) Even still, it’s hard not to be bummed that I was too young to see Hebden support records like Rounds in dark clubs instead of slammed stadiums.

Trying to pinpoint what makes a perfect electronic album is a difficult undertaking. Usually, the most poignant records in the same niche as Rounds thrive because of an overt intention or functional purpose. (William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops and the KLF’s Chill Out respectively come to mind.) But – especially coming from a person as aloof and understated as Four Tet – I think it just comes down to the essence that an assemblage of sounds gives off. In the scope of Hebden’s sprawling discography, it doesn’t get more beautiful than Rounds. The album played a huge role in creating the blueprint for generations of esoteric bedroom beatmakers to come, but at the end of the day it doesn’t sound like a body of work anyone else could find a way to produce.

In line with this sentiment, Rounds is an all-timer for me because – since the first time I heard it as a 15-year-old – it has reminded me of this exact same scene: I wake up in a rural manor, and it’s drizzling outside. The pastures and hills that roll outside my window are verdant. I get out of bed, walk downstairs, put the keys in an old European sedan, and spend a solitary morning driving around the countryside. The clouds and mist around me are so thick that I forget what it means to be human. The whole time, “She Moves She” is innocuously playing at the perfect volume in the background.

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