Piers Barber listens to Beautiful Rewind, a Four Tet record influenced by garage and pirate radio that still retains the hallmarks of the producer’s characteristic shimmering electronica.
Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet, is a restless and prolific creator, but must surely also be the embodiment of the controlling label boss’ worst nightmare. In August he gave away his Late Night Tales mix for free, after the series decided to release a remaster of the album without consulting him first. Then there was his Rinse FM session last week, a show that clocked in at the length of a full conventional working day: eight hours of sprawling, enthralling radio which sonically shifted between funky house and jungle, thumping tape techno and elegant bits of Middle Eastern pop (no doubt influenced by his recent production of Omar Souleyman’s Wenu Wenu). It even nonchalantly featured a thrilling rough diamond in the shape of an unreleased Burial collaboration. It was a typically blasé Four Tet moment: Hebden’s offhand accompanying comment, “I hope someone’s recording this for YouTube,” is as far as this rare groove will ever get to an official release.
Fittingly, then, Beautiful Rewind, Hebden’s seventh full-length offering as Four Tet, was a haphazard conception, a under-hyped project announced to be “coming soon” just a few weeks ago on Twitter and spared the tedium of endless label promotional work. “No last minute Rick Rubin,” was @FourTet’s commendably low-key promise. It emerged it would be released on Hebden’s own label, Text, and, unlike previous album Pink, would be comprised entirely of previously unreleased material.
The finished result is a record that sounds markedly different from his previously released studio albums, and instead taps more into the flavours of his incredible 2-step flavoured FABRICLIVE.59 mix from 2011. Indeed, despite the popularity of the crisp, melodic flourishes that characterised his best known work to date, 2010’s There Is Love In You, Hebden’s diverse musical tastes have always revolved around grime and garage, sounds which he permits to flourish on Beautiful Rewind. As a result, it is a record soaked in the influence of British dance music’s racy and innovative outer fringes, also existing as a tribute to golden age of pirate radio: a world of vinyl crackle, boisterous MCs and intriguing smatterings of unexplained feedback.
Hebden borrows broadly and indiscriminately from these influences. There are chopped up MC chants (“You want to get fucked you want to smoke drugs”) on tracks like ‘Aerial’, there’s jungle rhythms, like on ‘Gong’, that are reminiscent of Zomby’s With Love album, and icy grime beats, as on ‘Crush’. ‘Kool FM’, the album’s centrepiece, features clattering drum segments and is constructed, true to the album’s name, around the sound of rewinding record. Elsewhere, ‘Buchla’ is a thrilling chunk of bassy techno coloured with a chopped up MC sample pushed high up in the mix. There are no songs with hooks like Pink‘s ‘Locked’ or There Is Love In You‘s ‘Love Cry’ here, but to search for them is to miss the point of the record: this is an earthy, detailed nod to the gritty thumps and bleeps of the British underground, rather than a finely polished set of club-ready crowd pleasers.
It is a tribute that feels and sounds genuine, but from beneath the grit and crackle, Four Tet’s characteristic chiming, shimmering shards of musical light persistently emerge. A soothing vocal overlays ‘Parallel Jalebi’’s chugging rhythm, whilst ‘Ba Teaches Yoga’ sounds like the soundtrack to an alien discovery of a far off land. ‘Unicorn’, meanwhile, is a typically beautiful Four Tet composition, delicately clinking and chiming its way through a cinematic three minutes.
Mixing such contrasting elements is a delicate operation, and at points it seems obvious why pirate radio grime and ambient electronica are rarely combined. However, when it works, most noticeably on ‘Aerial’, it’s a trick which possesses a potent impact. In the same way that the most exhilarating rock and roll is never technically flawless, so does the finest electronic music retain imperfections and demonstrate risks to the extent that the compositions occasionally feel they might spin out of control and collapse in on themselves at any moment. As he has done throughout his career, here Hebden largely proves himself a master of this delicate balancing act.
Ultimately, Beautiful Rewind is an album that somehow prompts the desire to both dig out low quality rips of ten year old DJ Slimzee mixes whilst at the same time take ecstasy in some kind of stunning outer universe. It’s an intriguing and playful record that rewards some hard work with a few genuinely excellent dance gems. More than anything, it’s an intensely personal tapestry created by an artist who by this stage, of course, has very little left to prove to anyone. Thankfully for his fans, Four Tet’s experiements continue to produce largely exquisite and endlessly interesting results.
Follow Piers on Twitter @piersbarber18