Electronic music can be a fickle friend, and it’s rare to find artists still in vogue and at the height of their powers two decades into their career, but that’s precisely the case with Kieran Hebden.
Having started his career in the late-’90s as a member of post-rock trio Fridge, Hebden first began to develop his solo project while at university, resulting in the release of his debut album as Four Tet, Dialogue, in 1999.
21 years later, he’s just released his tenth full Four Tet album, Sixteen Oceans, potentially the most eagerly anticipated of his career. Those 10 albums are just the tip of the iceberg, though; the intervening two decades have included aliases, projects and rarities too numerous to mention.
We’ve done our best to whittle that output down to five key tracks, although these barely scratch the surface (we’ve not touched the many killer collaborations, excellent remixes or impressive live albums).
1. Four Tet - Love Cry
Given the breadth of Kieran Hebden’s output it’s tough to pin his work down to a single sound, but if we were forced to name one archetypal Four Tet track then Love Cry is as good as any.
The lead single from 2010’s There Is Love In You, the track marks a pivotal moment in Hebden’s discography where he finally shook off the unfortunate ‘folktronica’ tag of his early releases and made a decisive shift towards a more overt dance music sound. It’s also a track that combines a lot of common Four Tet tropes. The groove layers swung, organic drum loops with electronic percussion to create a beat that sounds more like two jazz drummers jamming than something created on a DAW timeline.
The melodic elements, too, are a distinctive combination of pulsing synths, sliced-up instrumental recordings, and re-pitched and reversed elements that give a glistening, ethereal feel to the track’s top end.
Love Cry is most notable, though, for marking the first appearance of the distinctive Four Tet vocal flip; a hook created out of just one or two sampled words, looped and repeated into an infectious earworm.
2. KH - Only Human
There are those who would write-off Four Tet’s take on dance music as being too chin-strokey, but that criticism overlooks the fact that, both as a producer and DJ, Kieran Hebden is no stranger to a straight-up pop banger.
Case in point: last year’s festival-dominating Only Human. Released under his KH alias, the track is essentially an edit of Nelly Furtado’s Afraid, taking a straight lift of the track’s chorus and looping it over a shuffling, garage-inflected techno beat that manages to be both tough and funky in equal measure.
From a production point of view, it’s a masterclass in how to make the most out of a few killer elements. A lesser producer might have been tempted to overwork the vocal loop with pitched effects or glitch edits, or throw in some dominant synth drop, but aside from a bit of delay and doubling on the vocals and a pulsing bassline, Hebden leaves the hook and drums to do the heavy lifting on their own.
3. Percussions - Bird Songs
As the name implies, tracks released under Hebden’s Percussions alias tend to eschew the melodic flourishes of his Four Tet work and put the focus firmly on the rhythmic elements. While it’s tempting to describe Percussions as a more ‘club-centric’ alias, in reality, these tracks are just as complex and nuanced as anything on a Four Tet album; they just take a slightly different approach to building a groove.
Bird Songs is a prime example of this; it takes its name from the layers of field recordings used to add texture, all underpinned by grooving, rhythmic sampling that sounds like it could be the product of throwing an assortment of vinyl stabs into an MPC and letting fly with the pads.
4. Four Tet - Sun Drums and Soil
In the earlier years of his solo career - from the late ‘90s through to 2010 - Four Tet was often associated with the not entirely flattering term ‘folktronica’, a somewhat unfair generalisation of his sound based on his use of ‘real’ instrumentation and natural-sounding textures.
In reality, those earlier albums touch on everything from minimal techno and breakbeat to post-rock. In fact, more than either folk or electronica, the underlying influence that draws everything together is the same strain of jazz-informed beak-making touted by hip-hop artists like J Dilla or Madlib.
There are plenty of highlights worth delving into from this era - his third album Rounds holds up particularly well, as do his extended jams with late jazz drumming great Steve Reid or the tumble-down percussive loops of A Joy, which sounds like Flying Lotus at his most speaker-rattling.
For a condensed version of all these influences, though, look no further than Sun Drums and Soil, from his fourth album Everything Ecstatic. It’s six minutes of loose beat loops, synth drones and meandering instrumentation that sits somewhere on the intersection between jazz, ambient techno, hip-hop and instrumental rock.
5. KH – The Track I've Been Playing That People Keep Asking About And That Joy Used In His RA Mix And Daphni Played On Boiler Room
Noteworthy for its title as much as the track itself, this catchily-named number - a sly dig at the internet’s insatiable hunger for track IDs - is a prime example of Hebden’s love of playful and occasionally obtuse release tactics, which have involved an erratic hopping between aliases, some of which are entirely unpronounceable and not particularly Google-friendly.
Sonically, it’s a great example of another key Four Tet trait - his fondness for pulling sounds and influences from a host of international traditions. Hebden himself has some Indian heritage, and traditional instrumentation from that part of the world crops up regularly in his productions, but his discography is peppered with different rhythms from right across Africa and Asia, too.
There are times when this international genre-hopping can feel a bit ‘world music’, coming across like the soundtrack to a gap year backpacking trip, but on tracks like this it works to fuse a unique groove into the otherwise rigid dance music framework. The result is a rough-around-the-edges club banger, reminiscent of the loose-limbed techno of artists like Theo Parrish.