After the crossover success of his early-2000s breakthrough records Pause and Rounds, Kieran Hebden, AKA Four Tet, hasn’t been afraid to challenge his audience. Between 2005 and 2010, Hebden did all he could to shed the easy-listening “chill vibes” crowd that joined the throng after 2003’s Rounds, turning in acid-fried noise-tronica with the hugely underrated Everything Ecstatic and a prolific string of free-jazz collaborations with the late drummer Steve Reid.
After allowing some of those fair-weather fans back into the fold with the relatively crowd-pleasing efforts of his last two LPs, Hebden is back at it again with Morning/Evening, a 40-minute LP comprised of two 20-minute long slow-burners that are at once classic Four Tet, and a step in a new direction for the veteran producer. The first track “Morning Side” takes a striking string-and-vocal sample of famous Hindi singer Lata Mangeshkar and wraps it gently around Hebden’s signature, snaking two-step rhythms. The sample isn’t necessarily striking for what it contains musically, but more for how unmanipulated and up-front Hebden leaves it in the mix, forgoing his longtime preference for sliced-and-diced vocal processing. Unfortunately, this new approach doesn’t quite work in Hebden’s favor, as the track actually improves after the heavy sample finally begins to dissipate about ten minutes in, making way for some impressively complex drum programming and stabs of arpeggiated synths that close out the first side nicely.
Side two, “Evening Side”, is where Hebden really shines. A dreamscape of heady electronic-psychedelia, the track works in part because its length allows it to properly ebb and flow in ways he’s never allowed himself to on previous records. It works also in the way that all great Four Tet moments work, like viewing a kaleidoscope. Hebden first presents the listener with an unfocused image, with disparate sounds seemingly fighting against each other, then slowly he twists the lens over the course of the song, revealing breathtaking moments of clarity. Bright, bubbling synths, flashes of sinewy Floydian guitar, and heavenly female vocal runs combine to create about as close as you can get to a transcendent musical experience whilst remaining free of controlled substances. The track’s rather brilliant twist though, is that Hebden waits until after the sonic climax to bring in the shuffling garage rhythm, which, while guaranteed to infuriate the average EDM listener, is sure to delight and induce grins from fans who have grown to love Hebden’s mercurial, left-field approach.
Though not always as thoroughly cohesive as Hebden’s best records, Morning/Evening is another more-than-solid outing from Four Tet, largely succeeding on the sheer strength of the second side. What’s even more encouraging though, is that Hebden has shown that even over 16 years into his career, he is still as intent as ever on releasing challenging, idiosyncratic music in an electronica landscape that’s increasingly devoid of it, making Hebden’s music as vital as ever.