The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

“You Were There With Me” – An Introduction to Four Tet

Dialogue (1999)


It’s currently unavailable on mainstream streaming services, but Kieran Hebden’s first full-length solo outing Dialogue was eventually made available on Bandcamp in 2014, alongside his first three Four Tet EPs and the massive ‘thirtysixtwentyfive’ single from the mid-Nineties when the project was still just a personal indulgence for him alongside his three-piece band Fridge.

Talking Heads’ seminal Remain In Light, as well as the polyrhythms of David Byrne’s famed collaboration album with Brian Eno My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, seem to be a key influence, only Hebden opts to stretch them out, slow them down and allow the arrangements to breathe. Organic instrumentation is constructed with digital precision. The meditative and lightly ethereal ‘Chiron’ and the deep bass and occasional jazz squalls of ‘3.3 Degrees From The Pole’ and ‘The Butterfly Effect’ are highlights, with acoustic bass, scattered drums, tabla and sitar being the key focus of the blissful final track ‘Charm’. The extended CD version’s additional three tracks at the end are all in the same reflective vein.

Looked back upon with the benefit of hindsight, Hebden’s first album-length recording is remarkably fully-formed, feeling confident and un-self-conscious. There’s shades of Massive Attack-influenced trip-hop and the cut-up collages of DJ Shadow, the deep regular drum sounds reminiscent of big beat, and elements of post-rock grooves that Hebden intelligently moulds into something compelling, if not particularly new. But at the same time, Dialogue only really laid the groundwork for the artist he would truly become in the 21st century. (6/10) (LISTEN)

Pause (2001)


With his second Four Tet album, Kieran Hebden began to properly conjure the magic for which he would become known throughout his career. Using the setting of a working office as a motif (computer keyboards can be heard clacking away in the first and final tracks), Pause is the sound of machine music with a human heartbeat. Although it’s constructed as a collage of samples interspersed with turntable flourishes, the instrumentation all sounds completely naturalistic and live, rubbishing the still-prevalent idea that electronica was somehow soulless.

Right from the opening track ‘Glue Of The World’, Hebden establishes a head-nodding groove and gently weaves new age, acoustic jazz, and flamenco music into the mesmerising musical pattern. From here on, there’s highlights aplenty, with the harder, hip-hop-influenced psychedelic drone of ‘No More Mosquitoes’ and the heavier and more machine-like ‘Untangle’. The short interlude tracks like ‘Harmony One’ are as inventive and engaging as the longer ones, with keyboard sounds used to create ambient rhythm tracks. The sparse ‘You Could Ruin My Day’ points towards the stunning arrangements of Rounds that would be Hebden’s next act.

Pause, more than any other Four Tet album, was responsible for the irritating ‘folktronica’ tag that was slapped upon Hebden for most of the decade, but you can see why it stuck. With its warm and meditative feel, this was music for real, human living spaces, not designer soundtracks for cold and pretentious art galleries that lesser artists commonly made around 2001. It marked the point at which the Four Tet project as Hebden’s vehicle for supra-cultural electronica, how disparate sounds from all over the world can be resolved and unified with the skill of a DJ, properly began. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Rounds (2003)


Kieran Hebden is nothing if not adaptable and a quick learner, rarely content to sit back and coast in his music-making. His remarkable third Four Tet album, Rounds, is nothing less than a masterpiece of British electronic music, and was heralded as such right from the moment of release. He’s always displayed an ear for a conventional pop tune that has made his work much more accessible than that of some of his fellow laptop-artists, but this was the best kind of experimental album: one that could offer something to everybody who came to it.

Perhaps this was the result of Hebden’s sister being invited to listen in to the recording process to tell him when he was getting “too geeky”, but the key to the genius of Rounds is the lack of fussiness in the arrangements, which unfurl and develop according to their own internal logic. As such, the blissful lullaby of ‘My Angel Rocks Back And Forth’, both funereal yet feather-light, fits in the same musical tableau as the booming hip-hop beats of ‘As Serious As Your Life’ and the constantly degrading beats of ‘She Moves She’. The hyperspeed banjo strums of ‘Spirit Fingers’, in lesser hands, would be an irritant, but with Hebden it is both melancholy and transcendent. As for the resplendently slow ‘Unspoken’, a 10-minute head-nodder, an entire sonic world is spun that a listener can retreat to again and again.

Rounds is not only the apex of Hebden’s many achievements as Four Tet, it’s a perfect gateway album to the rest of his discography, and for an entire sub-genre of music. An essential part of anybody’s record collection, rarely has a purely electronic album felt so human and warm. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Everything Ecstatic (2005)

In an attempt to shake off the ‘folktronica’ tag that had burdened him since the word-of-mouth success of Rounds, Kieran Hebden opted for an earthier, groove-orientated approach to his next Four Tet album. Everything Ecstatic was much denser and more rooted in free jazz than the sparse off-kilter electronics and organic samples of his previous efforts.

But at least for the first half of the album, the newer approach often sacrificed Hebden’s natural gift for melody. Lead single ‘Smile Around The Face’ was a cheerful but slightly odd choice to plug the record, although its sampling style mimicked that of Kanye West and The Avalanches. The irregular clatter of opening salvo ‘A Joy’ set out the stall a lot more effectively, while the slow-burn of ‘Sun Drums And Soil’ saw him channel jazz greats like Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, demonstrating that Hebden could be improvisational in his arrangements.

It was in the second half, however, that Everything Ecstatic truly displayed Hebden’s newfound strengths. The krautrock/computer game groove of ‘Turtle Turtle Up’ was followed by the shifting, rumbling and totally hypnotic ‘Sleep, Eat Food, Have Visions’, with snaking tribal drums introduced to the mix during its outro. This attentively produced sequence is up there with the very best Four Tet moments that Hebden has ever made.

While it’s not his most consistent work, Everything Ecstatic is best understood as a distancing exercise, a wide-ranging effort that saw Hebden show the world that he could take any path he wanted and would not be pinned down to one distinctive style. (7/10) (LISTEN)

There Is Love In You (2010)

During the second half of the Noughties, Kieran Hebden put his Four Tet project on ice, getting himself involved in collaborations and remixes as well as DJing and only releasing one EP, titled Ringer. There Is Love In You, his first album in nearly five years, arrived right at the beginning of the following decade, and saw him effectively hit reset on all perceptions of what Four Tet really was. Hebden pared the music down to the bare bones, consisting of soft sound effects and tones, muted beats, and simple, twinkling melodies laid over the top, and it added up to his most inviting and accessible collection yet.

In comparison to the cluttered arrangements of his previous outing nearly half a decade before, There Is Love In You may be stripped-back but it works to the music’s advantage. Hebden curates rather than collects sound, and the build and release of tension that this re-ordering allows makes for some absolutely blissful deep cuts like ‘Love Cry’ and ‘Circling’. Any vocal effects are so wordless as to be almost textural, another part of the mix rather than front and centre. The spartan, ice-blue beauty of ‘This Unfolds’, the cut-up vocals of ‘Angel Echoes’ and the glitch-ridden ‘Sing’ are other great illustrations of the new aesthetic.

There were no dubstep or jazz-influenced workouts, no trance-like incantations here – instead, Hebden allowed his compositions to take off, achieve cruising altitude and then land with efficiency, and the effect is strangely very impressive. Despite the comparative absence of bells and whistles, There Is Love In You is a warm and strikingly pretty album, with Hebden’s pristine production encasing the songs with crystalline beauty. Outside of Hebden’s illustrious Rounds, you couldn’t look for a better place to start exploring the Four Tet discography. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Pink (2012)

The sixth Four Tet album wasn’t strictly a unified studio effort, consisting of three 12” AA-side singles released over a period of 13 months that were then compiled, in addition to two new songs, to form the eight-track Pink. As such, this collection of lengthy deep cuts that’s unusually dancefloor-focused, often making the most sense in the context of warehouse raves. Much like Hebden’s friend and collaborator Burial, who quit making albums following Untrueto focus on EP releases with much lengthier tracks, this allowed him to explore another facet of his musicianship, and it’s a collection to treasure.

From the spacious, uncluttered house of ‘Lion’, the subdued rave of ‘Pinnacles’ and the Underworld-esque trance-like pumping of ‘Pyramid’ to the two distinct halves of ‘Jupiters’ and the fleet-footed ‘Ocoras’, Kieran Hebden fuses the Four Tet aesthetic to the demands of higher BPMs like it’s the most natural thing he ever did. On top of that, there’s the mystical beauty exuding from ‘Locked’ and the lustrous twinkling of ‘Peace For Earth’, which retained the sound of older records.

Much like the more ordered aesthetic established on There Is Love In You, Hebden didn’t overhaul or revolutionise the sound for which he was already beloved, instead re-purposing it. This yielded an embarrassment of riches, with the structural logic of how these songs were created meaning that Pink maintains the focus of a 12” single or EP for over an hour. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Beautiful Rewind (2013)

In contrast to the usual build-up of hype and expectation that his fanbase directed towards every new album release, Beautiful Rewind arrived completely out of the blue in October 2013 without any promotion, trailer videos or teasers of any kind. A bold move by a strictly cult artist to drop a surprise LP, usually the reserve of mainstream rap and pop megastars, but it was a pleasant one nonetheless. However, although there are a handful of memorable moments, Beautiful Rewind in places fell a bit below the usual exceptional standards that Kieran Hebden had set for himself.

Many reviewers, while talking up its undeniable prettiness, felt that many of the tracks felt like Hebden didn’t really get out of second gear. There seemed to be an effort to replicate the stylistically diverse sounds of UK pirate radio stations, inspired by touches of garage, grime and funky, but the effect is to make one or two of the tracks seem simplistic rather than simple. The mesmerising juddering beats of ‘Parallel Jalebi’, the throwback rave of ‘Kool FM’ and ‘Buchla’ and the twinkling ‘Unicorn’ are notable exceptions to this, and indicate what the whole album could potentially have been with a little more time and focus dedicated to it – a sense of the Four Tet sound completing a full circle.

It was far from a poor album, it must be emphasised, but in the context of what’s been a dazzling and constantly evolving career at the cutting edge of British electronica, Beautiful Rewind was notably unfocussed, and easily the closest thing to a mis-step that Kieran Hebden has ever made. (6/10) (LISTEN)

Morning/Evening (2015)

In total contrast to the comparatively urgent and sketch-like creations of Beautiful Rewind, Hebden’s eighth Four Tet album went completely in the other direction, consisting of two side-of-vinyl length tracks with the blunt designations ‘Morning Side’ and ‘Evening Side’. The yin-yang logic of Morning/Evening plays to Hebden’s strengths brilliantly, allowing him to establish one constant mood or rhythm and then play with it over an extended period of time, adding and removing elements and improvising around the edges of the mix.

While it’s designed to literally be a soundtrack to your day, there’s other elements underneath that utilitarian construction. It’s about circadian rhythms, the soul-cleansing power of greeting the new day, and also an exploration of Hebden’s childhood, his family and his influences. For example, he pays tribute to his Indian heritage by utilising a looped vocal sample of singer Lata Mangeshkar (a familiar name to any fan of Indian cinema) on the distinctly New Age-influenced ‘Morning Side’, into which he builds his trademark drum programming and deep, cinematic swells of bass, while the spiritual chant fades in and out of the mix. Meanwhile, ‘Evening Side’ was more restful and meditative – the way that the solid rhythmical pattern finally emerges out of the hazy ambience is like staring at a magic eye puzzle, a pumping beat finally assembling itself from a miasma of abstract whooshes, liquid clicks and clacks and wordless vocals.

Seemingly a direct response to the criticisms of his previous effort, Morning/Evening was all about the production. Despite its laptop origins, it felt like an extremely naturalistic experience, resulting in a staggeringly opulent piece of work, and up there with his very best efforts. (8/10) (LISTEN)

New Energy (2017)

Prefaced with Hebden posting a mammoth 50-hour playlist of his influences, from dance to jazz and new wave to world music, the most recent Four Tet release had a distinctly nostalgic feel, despite the forward-looking connotations of titling it New Energy. After a decade that was mostly characterised stretching in new directions, working with others or trying out different templates for his sound, this felt like the work of an artist looking to his own past for inspiration. The album was also notable for virtual instrument replications of instruments associated with other, non-Western cultures.

What Hebden came up with was hardly ground-breaking – by his own standards, at least – but was nevertheless revelatory and extremely satisfying. The chiming beauty of ‘Two Thousand And Seventeen’, for example, with its fluttering sitar line and spacious, head-nodding groove that was both blissful yet contained just a hint of anxiety about the future, took the listener’s breath away right from the start. Hebden managed to balance the demands of chill-out, ambient music and the energy of the dancefloor, often switching between mood halfway through tracks, such as the breathtaking closer ‘Planet’, while ‘Scientists’ and the deep house / garage hybrid ‘SW9 9SL’ (a postcode in Brixton) flitted between hot and cold textures.

New Energy represented, in part, a return to the kind of musical structures favoured in his earliest Four Tet work, but still wedded to the meticulous sense of order to which Hebden had been committed since There Is Love In You, at the start of the 2010s. Amazingly, after nearly two decades in the game, it also leaves you with the impression that Kieran Hebden is an artist with complete freedom and could go anywhere, not wedded to any distinct style but is still somebody whose work is immediately distinct and identifiable. (8/10) (LISTEN)

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