Album Review: Four Tet, “Beautiful Rewind”

(Originally written for Reverb1)

It’s no revelation that your industry-standard DJ probably favors the attention deficit. To please a house full of diverse tastes, a DJ has to be as quick with a song change as he is handy with a crossfader. With sampling, modern EDM has taken that to the next level, to the point where you can have entire songs—even albums—composed solely of bits of different songs. By the time you realize you don’t like a song sample, it’s already gone.

Like an academic essay or maybe more appropriately, an episode of Family Guy, there’s a lot of citations involved. In this sense, DJs are curators before all else, their sets only as good as their favorite records.

Or sounds, in English producer Kieran Hebden’s case. As Four Tet, Hebden is known for sampling individual sounds from a host of far-flung records, the exact lengths of which were highlighted in his entry in the Late Night Tales series. After the dance floor-ready “Pink,” “Beautiful Rewind” has Hebden crafting the intricate sound collages he cut his teeth on, this time hammered with steely anxiety.

The organic nature of Hebden’s music that branded him with the indelible label of “folktronica” is gone on “Beautiful Rewind,” switched off for an industrial template of noises instead. It isn’t immediately apparent—instrumentally, “Gong” sounds like a busy marketplace somewhere in southern Asia, despite its piped vocals. Conversely, the excellent “Parallel Jalebi” clips on four synth notes in quick succession while relying on the sensuous voice sample to shoot it through with humanity; “Your Body Feels” has a similar helicopter-blade rhythm sequence. “Our Navigation” is a touch darker but no less synthetic, with chirping motherboards and foreboding electronic gurgles—Boards of Canada in spirit.

Unlike most of his past work, “Beautiful Rewind” sounds more oppressive than anything though, hitting you with screwed down drums, pneumatic fills and aggravated vocal bits. “Kool FM” devolves slowly into an overwhelming industrial cacophony, its overseer yelling “Hey, hey, hey!” from somewhere on high. “Buchla” starts heavy and plodding but grinds away into a roomier female vocal-based variation of itself, punctuated by the odd digital skitter. “Aerial” turns from the wondrous sort of electro-pop Hot Chip‘s known for into bad-trip acid house, thanks to unintelligible yet distressed vocals.

Two genuinely pretty songs, “Ba Teaches Yoga” and “Unicorn” book-end the album’s hectic middle and will certainly please those who prefer the more relaxed nature of classic Four Tet. They serve as transitions more than stand-out moments, but do well to contrast the ever-changing chaos, which can be overbearing.

The mutability of “Beautiful Rewind” keeps you guessing, shirking the listener off at about the point the track would catch on were it apart of a DJ set. Not that this album is really meant for the floor; “Parallel Jalebi” and “Your Body Feels” are as qualified as any, but even then it’d have to be a pretty art-house club. Instead, “Beautiful Rewind” is an album for small speakers: home stereos and headphones. It’s an apt soundtrack for the chaos of the city, what it’d feel like to get sucked into a cyberpunk flick, or at times, induce labor. Assuming that’s the album’s bag (and yours), it nails it. Otherwise, it’s more of a lateral step for Four Tet than anything, into an even less accessible realm than before.

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