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The Masterful Ebb and Flow of Four Tet’s 4TLR Series

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Kieran Hebden is having quite the year.

Following a run of shows in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, he released the single “Only Human,” a godsend to DJs around the world in search of their go-to barnburner to drop at peak hours. A month later he performed an iconic set at Coachella entirely in the dark, save for two lamps to light his equipment, an especially bold choice considering that tent’s following act was an all-out audio-visual onslaught crafted by the hands of Aphex Twin. All this culminated in a career-defining weekend at London’s legendary Alexandra Palace, Four Tet’s most ambitious gig yet. Armed with the mesmerizing Squidsoup installation (a collection of over 40,000 individual hanging lights that cascade from the rafters down into the crowd) and a jumble of equipment and cords that look like one of the freakish creatures that reside on the ocean floor, Hebden weaved the sweetest delicacies of his discography into a two-hour spectacle that he’s now published online as LIVE AT ALEXANDRA PALACE LONDON. But to understand how momentous this occasion truly was, we first have to go back 15 years to see how Hebden got here.

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From the second Four Tet burst onto the scene, it was obvious he had no parallel. In what would prove to be a very ~on brand~ choice, Hebden’s first single under the moniker was “Thirtysixtwentyfive,” which ran, you guessed it, a whopping 36 minutes and 25 seconds. His sound was so unique that by the time critics caught onto his 2003 gem, ROUNDS, writers were so perplexed by what they were hearing that they had to invent a new genre, folktronica, to categorize it. The accompanying tour strayed further from the confines of categorization, stretching out songs to three or four times the studio runtime with such a fervor that at times it sounded like the speakers were malfunctioning. Our glimpse into this time comes by way of LIVE AT HULTSFRED FESTIVAL, a recording of his 2004 set at the now-defunct Swedish gathering. It’s about as far from a traditional DJ set as one could get, ruminating on just five tracks during his allotted 53 minutes, each manipulated past the point of recognition. The last two minutes of “Glue of the World” is fuckery of the highest order, compressing and pitch-shifting the stems into a cacophony of noise that is still somehow danceable. “As Serious As Your Life” gets the Barry Bonds BALCO treatment, bulking up to an astounding 17 minutes, not a single second of it coming across as tired or repetitive. And while the scope of the set (comprised of four ROUNDS tracks and the aforementioned PAUSE opener) is quite narrow, it’s the 4TLR (“Four Tet Live Recordings”) release most indicative of his skill as a performer and improviser.

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Holding approximately 700 people, (Le) Poisson Rouge is the smallest room host to a 4TLR. His set at (Le) Poisson Rouge boils down into a director’s cut of his best record, THERE IS LOVE IN YOU, and while it’s a promising tagline, LPR NEW YORK is the least rewarding listen in the 4TLR canon. Most of the songs are strung out well past their studio length, slowly Frankensteined together stem-by-stem in the vain of The Avalanches’ SINCE I LEFT YOU if it were compiled after a line of ketamine. There are of course stunning moments, like the conjoining “Ringer” and “Love Cry,” both of which run well north of 10 minutes, but those willing to indulge the extended tracks are in for a treat. The former is especially spectacular, starting with a probing synth quite similar to LCD Soundsystem’s “Get Innocuous” and ending with an all-out blitz of sound that’s trippy, jazzy, and grimy all at once.

With peaks come valleys, and LPR NEW YORK’s floor is disappointingly low as Hebden consistently takes some awfully long walks to get from track to track. Even the transition between the two best songs in the set come with an almost two-minute-long drawn-out pause. Sure, a scenic stroll is nice from time to time, but it doesn’t hurt to call a cab every once in a while. Audience members are compelled to fill the silence and during the waning seconds of “A Joy” a man yells out, “Amy’s girlfriend is a computer!” and another man follows up with, “That’s right!” My first assumption, backed up by another man following the two with a shout for “No More Mosquitoes,” was that this was a song request for the deepest of cuts in Four Tet’s catalogue, but no such song exists. My second is that these two buddies wanted their friend Amy to join them at the show but she chose to stay at home browsing the web than dance with these two chumps. And still, after much thought, I’ve arrived at a third hypothesis that I believe to be correct: the top Google search results for “Amy’s girlfriend is a computer” are nearly all about the character Amy from BIG BANG THEORY, a character who first appeared on the sitcom the same year LPR NEW YORK was recorded. I believe these two men to be writers for the smash hit sitcom who had, earlier that day, pitched an episode that involved Amy developing a PC paramour and were rebuked by the rest of the staff. Disappointed yet not discouraged, the two men set out to turn this idea into a grassroots movement, looking to plant the seed in an inebriated Four Tet crowd, hoping this million dollar idea would take hold and before you know it Season 5 of Big Bang Theory would almost entirely revolve around Amy and her Lenovo love interest.

Anyway…

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LIVE IN TOKYO is the most observable shift in Hebden’s live blueprint. He spends less time dwelling on individual tracks, instead focusing his efforts towards threading them into one another, introducing tracks with selected samples and riffs over the top of what’s already spinning before letting the song run free on its own. The Tokyo set is comprised of tracks from PINK and BEAUTIFUL REWIND, a comparably dull stretch in his discography, but Hebden breathes new life into the records, taking the most psychedelic bits and elevating them to new heights by stringing them into each other over progressively frantic and entrancing percussion rhythms. The result is a spellbinding hour of music that rivals any other such allotment across his studio and live releases. “Jupiters” thrives in its extended runtime, occupying a mysterious space in which it feels as if the track is constantly building up and breaking down until it cascades into “128 Harps,” a trippy excursion that eschews the drums just long enough for you to forget you’re listening to a club set until his signature blend of looped vocal samples and textured percussion re-enters the fold. The intensity continues to build before blooming into an uncontrollable beast with the emergence of “Buchla,” the clear-cut standout in the set that perfectly encapsulates what makes Four Tet sets so brilliant, taking what was, by his standards, a middling studio cut into an ascendant stunner of a track that kicks the set into the highest of gears as Hebden burns through three more BEAUTIFUL REWIND selections. The hypest of these, “Pyramid Kool FM,” is his dynamite go-to, this time opting to gradually reveal over the course of a few minutes before slamming on the gas with the unmistakable “hey hey hey” vocal sample that flies in the face of the eastern melodic selections that span his discography. Concluding with “Parallel Jalebi,” the final 26 minutes of this set serve as a BEAUTIFUL REWIND redux, transforming what was a haphazard collection of songs into a single ornate tapestry.

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As for the performance that set off this deluge of 4TLR releases, LIVE AT FUNKHAUS BERLIN is a much appreciated punch up of NEW ENERGY, his 2017 record that lands somewhere between nice and necessary. While NEW ENERGY at times lacks the titular noun and fraternizes with a tad too many interludes, it still makes for an upper-tier Four Tet record and the FUNKHAUS versions don a dashing pair of dancing shoes. “LA Trance” was a stupefying standout on NEW ENERGY, but the FUNKHAUS take climbs right out of the building with a swanky new set of percussion that turns the track into a bona fide steam engine with nothing but miles of straightaway in its sights. It’s got all the hallmarks of Hebden’s signature drum programming as it slowly clicks into place like gears on the oldest contraption in the toy store. After letting the synth line stand alone for its deserved moment in the spotlight, the snares snap right back into place and the kicks, toms, and hi-hats thump, crack, and sizzle, so locked in that it isn’t until the dreamy, drawn-out keys from “SW9 9SL” formulate that you realize he’s been playing the same track for nearly 10 minutes. The aforementioned track, which takes its name from an address in Brixton, is indicative of Four Tet’s uncanny ability to subvert the norm in ways that would make other artists look like fools if they tried the same.

“SW9 9SL” patiently summits a staircase, hinting at an explosive unraveling of tension, but instead takes a sudden U-turn back to the opening riff we’ve already heard. It’s a trick that seems to, whether intentionally or not, poke fun at the bog standard build-drop-build-drop format that’s defined every mainstage EDM set this decade. This isn’t a mean-spirited jab and it’s certainly not in the same vein that bands with guitars bemoan those with no “real instruments” being billed above them on a festival poster. In fact, he’s one of the least pretentious of his ilk when it comes to pop, consistently spinning Ariana Grande, Rihanna, and other chart toppers into his sets and his ever-evolving Spotify playlist. But Hebden isn’t afraid to tease out a transition in the traditional form either, like he does between “Lush” and “Kool FM,” a pairing akin to watching Mike Trout walk up to the plate, crush a 450 foot home run, round the bases, and then pick up the bat to hit another one 500 feet. The handoff from “Lush” to “Kool FM” is a dramatically long one, operating in an alternate reality where relay racers have to hold the baton together for 50 meters to validate the transaction, a precursor to the mixing style on ALEXANDRA PALACE. Both participants are their standard fare, though “Lush” may be sped up just a tad, and there’s really not all that much Hebden could edit on either to make them more formidable in the club. FUNKHAUS’ Official 4TLR Exclusive is “Morning Side” from his criminally underrated 2015 record, MORNING/EVENING. Lata Mangeshkar’s voice sweeps with wide strokes atop incessant and intricate drum programming that rivals that of any other cut from his discography. The percussive breakdowns in the middle section sound like an old computer gasping its last breaths as it finally overheats after a decade of labor, but the death knell is waved away as merely a detour in a matter of seconds when the weeping chords return, this time drawn out even longer, and a filtered Mangeshkar sample slithers back into the foreground. It ought to be a cornerstone of every set he plays, but is understandably left out as it demands a near half-hour.

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This long, winding road leads us to LIVE AT ALEXANDRA PALACE LONDON, Four Tet’s crowning achievement. To understand the sense of scale, watch the “Teenage Birdsong” music video, a saccharine slice of life that captures the feeling of a live performance better than just about any other concert recording I’ve come across. Remember the room he played in New York? That held 700. Alexandra Palace holds 10,000 and he sold it out. Twice. This just a sew months after he had sold out four straight nights at O2 Brixton Academy. And luckily for any repeat attendees, Hebden hadn’t run out of ideas. LIVE AT ALEXANDRA PALACE’s foundation isn’t a radical departure from FUNKHAUS’. It’s largely comprised of NEW ENERGY and a smattering of BEAUTIFUL REWIND, but the ALEXANDRA crowd bore witness to an additional selection of Four Tet singles and the gargantuan “Only Human,” released under KH, one of his myriad monikers. From the outset, it’s obvious this is his most fluid show of the lot as he blends “Planet” and “Dreamer” throughout “Part 1.” “Part 2” is serenely soothing until it’s not; Hebden, tricky as ever, activates freak mode with an anxious outro that sounds like bells and drum machines going into cardiac arrest. Parts 3 and 4 are where Four Tet really locks in, flipping through the choicest cuts in his arsenal with transitions subtle and smooth like he’s slowly wading from shore to sea.

Before you know it, you’re underwater. “Scientists” and “Ocoras” make for a delightful pairing, but are instantly overshadowed by the set’s pinnacle, “Only Human.” It’d take some otherworldly sleight of hand to disguise its entry into the mix, as even the least trained ears could spot the driving bassline hurtling, the corkscrewed percussion, and, of course, the Nelly Furtado vocal sample. Hebden lets it run longer than a SpongeBob episode, mashing it up with “Lush” until he drops “Kool FM” like a fucking anvil. It’s the type of moment that is guaranteed in every Four Tet gig—a moment when you just can’t help but laugh. It’s a very particular kind of laugh; the kind of laugh the highest guy at the rave lets out when he’s handed diffraction glasses. A laugh of utter disbelief. It’s usually a bit past the halfway point where any idea of the outside world has long since left your mind. At Alexandra, it was “Kool FM,” Tokyo – “Buchla,” Funkhaus – “LA Trance.” But Hebden doesn’t let you linger in this moment for too long as ALEXANDRA sprints into “Spirit Fingers” played at a pace that’d leave the Roadrunner in its rear view mirror. “Part 4” ushers in a patiently forged “LA Trance,” a much-needed moment for the audience to catch their breath. The run of “SW9 9WL,” “Locked,” and “Teenage Birdsong” that follows “Trance” is dreamier than the sweaty “Part 3,” but no less engaging.

It’s an extended wind-down that most DJs would be wary to try on a crowd primed for dancing, but when Hebden reads a room, he doesn’t give them what they want, he gives them what they didn’t know they needed. Sure, he’ll play the hits—not all of them of course, even his all-nighters couldn’t accommodate such a request—but no single sounds the same on a given night since Hebden is doing a lot of the work on the fly as he so fascinatingly demonstrated for Red Bull Academy a few years ago. That’s what makes Four Tet’s live show all the more impressive; you truly never know what you are going to get. One night, he may not play any of his productions while being completely in the dark. Another, he’ll run through strictly his own tracks under 40,000 hanging lights that flash and flicker with the beat. A writer more pretentious than I might call his show the thinking man’s ALIVE 2007. He’s completely unpredictable, except for one thing: a night with Four Tet will blow your fucking mind.

Ryan Moloney
I'm workshopping a professional bio.

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