By Conrad Amenta | 9 June 2008
Having allowed his free jazz guilt complex to play out across the unforgiving spans of Everything Ecstatic (2005) and collaborations with jazz-cum-art house drummer extraordinaire Steve Reid while fulfilling his obligations to childhood post-grunge rock trio Fridge, Kieran Hebden finally provides for the patient worshippers of penultimate statement Rounds (2003) the kind of balance between concision, reward and expansiveness that we’ve come to expect from one who, at his best, blossoms into an electronic artist with real vision.
The ten minute title track summarizes Hebden’s knowing cutaway to what Four Tet does best. Cyclical to the point of near-exhaustion, builds are subtle, headphones nearly a necessity, until the song finally punches into the cymbal wash of a succinct jazz drum break. It’s not quite a climax, nor is it designed to be anything quite so accommodating. The segment doesn’t last nearly as long as what you sit through to get to it, but the intuitions are contrapuntal: subtleties take time to build and time to appreciate, and Hebden takes every second required to explore the song’s confines, like a room coming gradually into daylight. The recompense of accessibility, on the other hand, tires if overplayed. It might be puritan of me to suggest that work buries a richer reward between its folds but the gesture gives Ringer, as a whole, a lasting power that both Hebden and Reid’s often contrary Exchange Sessions and Hebden-and-co.’s cooperative Fridge moments lack.
At first listen “Ribbons” might seem at home on Rounds, but had it been it might also have stood declarative from that album’s distinctive aesthetic, both clarifying and disrupting its hazy beauty. Here it acts as melodic centerpiece, cut up chimes floating over an eventual backbeat with conventions that reenergize Four Tet’s formula of abstraction steered against concrete, much like the moment of clarity in Everything Ecstatic, the still-stunning “Smile Around the Face.” “Ribbons” is Hebden’s best song in years, his idiosyncratic yet semi-classic IDM that manages still-moveable moments into long-playing formats.
The closing twenty minutes of the album wrench noise through Ringer‘s prescription, especially on “Swimmer,” rounding out the four tracks therein with a worthwhile diversity and yet, somehow, a concision of scope. Often Hebden has conceded to the possibilities afforded endless samples and noise experiments, refusing to impose borders on performance-heavy sets, but here each song, even when submitting to clamor, is intentionally and impressively limited in a way that watches blunt tools unreigned in the service of tangible construction. The songs build, sometimes in minute ways, sometimes with broader sweeps of noise’s broom, but always to some end.
What is unfair is the natural assumption that this EP, which is as long as many pop records, is a one-off concession to listener pressure before a return to more writerly endeavors, when I prefer to see it as an impressive return to strength and one of the best electronic albums of the year thus far. Not as obliging or accessible as Rounds, by any means, Ringer is still that album’s spiritual successor, its constituencies stretched to new lengths and widened to new depths. This album is a knowing genre-piece and incessantly listenable effort from one who some were beginning to suspect had become lost in a desert of his own visions.