Let's just get it out of the way: Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, is one of the '00s 'most inspired and unpredictable electronic musicians. He displayed more than mere promise on the early albums Pause, Rounds and Everything Ecstatic, all of which set a new standard for the hazy, sample-heavy sound at the intersection of hip-hop, IDM and indie. But a funny thing happened: just as "folktronica" seemed to be losing its pastoral glow, Hebden disappeared down the rabbit hole and discovered a whole new world of sound. With his duo work with legendary jazz drummer Steve Reid beginning to cement his name in improv circles and his dancefloor chops honed via burgeoning DJ bookings, Hebden chose 2008 to quietly reinvent himself with Ringer, an unassuming EP that delved into the language of techno.
Just four tracks and 30 minutes long, Ringer looks like a footnote to a career made of much more fulsome statements. But sink inside and you're treated to an album that sounds, genuinely, like no other; while the 4/4 beats, disco arpeggios and bleeping sequences are familiar from nearly two decades of techno tradition, Hebden puts his own unmistakable spin on the material. Having learned to really play his laptop — expressively, that is, and not as simply a glorified tape recorder — Hebden goes about sculpting four long, hypnotic tracks out of white-hot drum machines, percussion samples and off-kilter little keyboard riffs. In terms of his peers, it comes closest to the unstable terrain mapped by Chilean minimal maverick Ricardo Villalobos, but Four Tet's sound is even more warped; despite the ever-present forward momentum, it feels like he's kluging his loops together with twine and chewing gum. The results aren't so much messy — Hebden's touch is remarkably economical — as gracefully smudged, with loops tangling at the ends and burbly synthesizers making contact with a wet, soapy slap. It's lush, invigorating stuff, and likely to look, with a few years 'perspective, like a decisive turning point in Four Tet's career: an EP that earned "important album" status.