Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid/Mats Gustafsson

Live at the South Bank

(Smalltown Supersound; 2011)

By Conrad Amenta | 10 January 2012

A repetition of melody, less drone than percussive, as toms with an ocean’s worth of reverb on them ring patterns around the room and cymbal wash fills out the spaces. This description might be applied to any of the tracks on Live at the South Bank, and really to a number of improvisational jazz albums. That Kieran Hebden is also Four Tet, who in the last decade has risen into the strata of electronic music’s critical darlings, is no longer the project’s novelty; he is subsumed, as is all of the music here, into nominal ideas of temporary inspiration that can be occasionally, if only accidentally, striking.

When we assess the totality of their prolific output, it might be said that the often counterintuitive collaboration between Kieran Hebden and the late Steve Reid says more about the impact on Hebden as a songwriter than anything about the product they produced. Reid’s history is known (and if you don’t, is well worth reading about), but it’s Hebden who seems to be building to some defining statement, who is capable of creating the next great contemporary electronic album. And while his early work seemed to willfully fuse club and IDM principles, Hebden’s recent albums have seen the strategic compartmentalization of these into distinct properties. There is Love in You (2010), his much-praised last full length album, and Fabriclive 59 (2011) are among the most straightforward dance albums of his career. This performance, captured in 2009 and also featuring saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, predates those albums, and one imagines Hebden roping off what contrapuntal elements are at play here following Reid’s death. What Live at the South Bank might document is a point in time before Four Tet transitioned fully to electronic music, shelving the armchair avant for music that is immediate and relevant.

Interesting and refreshing to hear Hebden’s melodies used as rhythm while Reid’s drums lay down a smattering of elaborating textures; the drums in this equation are not complimentary or supportive, but the main act, and Hebden’s respect for Reid is evident as his characteristic skittishness is put aside. The performance itself is often spotty; Reid is often all over the map, switching quickly from idea to idea and seeming generally disinterested in allowing movements to develop, which can undercut a sense of dynamic progression through the work. Reid’s playing is, as always, wonderfully creative, a demonstration of his almost effortless imagination with the instrument, but as a band leader it’s unclear where he is directing the band, or the listener’s attention. Hebden, perhaps not feeling like it’s his place to wrestle the reins from a drumming legend, provides a sense of structure, but rarely combines rhythm and melody so precisely as we’ve heard on his other recorded works.

What Live at the South Bank accomplishes, which the pair’s other albums did not, is the use of the live setting to stretch out these compositions to marathon length. Opener “Morning Prayer” is over seventeen minutes, and closer “The Sun Never Sets” is almost as long. Only one track here is less than ten minutes, and so while it’s hard to recommend any one as a standout here—only “Untitled” approaches the kind of structure lending itself to previews—there are flashes of brilliance to be found if you commit the time. The pure density of the material can’t be denied. For either Reid or Hebden completists, Live at the South Bank is a useful and worthwhile artifact. For someone seeking entry to the catalogues of two vital artists, this is a thorny and difficult listen.