Essential New Music: Four Tet’s “Rounds”

Take this album title in either of two ways. On one hand, it could be a reference to the record’s rhythms. The percussion comes in tight little bursts, like machine-gun fire, sharp and sudden and shocking. On the other hand, the title could be a coy reference to the song structures. Kieran Hebden, the sole soul behind Four Tet, builds his compositions from a series of circular musical themes. The melody—never more than four or five bars—is announced at the get-go, and the rest of the song is given over to repeating that single phrase over Hebden’s volleying rhythms.

But rather than becoming forced or exhausted, the songs on Rounds end up using redundancy to achieve incredible tension and grace. Because Hebden favors organic instruments, he’s able to create odd dichotomies within the songs. A harp twinkles like a music box over a pulsing, hydraulic rhythm on “My Angel Rocks Back And Forth.” On “As Serious As Your Life,” a funk riff paws at a snare line. With Rounds, Hebden has found the secret meeting place for man and machine; he uses his cunning to exploit it and all of its startling possibilities.

—J. Edward Keyes