By its very ability to contain multitudes, hip-hop’s collage expression promised the universe; outside of music, pretty much every artistic step forward of the past two decades has drawn upon that promise. But what beat-based music itself does is spot an innovation, blossom into a subculture, and then atrophy, closing ranks and minds.
Twenty-five-year-old Londoner Kieran Hebden and 27-year-old Atlien Scott Herren have grown up under the shadow of hip-hop’s promise: For them, the steel-wheels truism of endless mixing and matching has been a primary pillar. Though not the only one: Jazz’s and punk’s future-forward promises, as well as vinyl and indie culture’s lone-wolf dilettantisms, have also affected their views of what delights could rest inside a grain of sand.
Which partly explains why Rounds, album No. 3 by Hebden’s Macintosh-built electronica Four Tet, and One Word Extinguisher, record No. 2 under Herren’s hip-hop-specific Prefuse guise, aren’t blipped-out instrumental bores. Different musically, they’re applications of similar oblique strategies reflecting outlooks an ocean apart. In the mosaics of the micro-bits both use as raw materials rest not just the sonic remnants of dirty humans who originally created them but the beauty of chaos and the pain of melody. For Herren and Hebden, an emotionally monochromatic universe of beats—whether mixed for cash, rebellion, or an audience of IDM-fetishizing hermits—has nothing to do with keeping anything real. It’s variety that counts.
Hebden tackles the project like a kid who’s been excavating evidence from his (and his dad’s) record collection all his life. He co-founded the trio Fridge at 14, and the equal thrills of old and new have always been reflected in that group’s touching, geeky mix of jazz, folk, and electronics. By his solo ’99 debut as Four Tet, Dialogue on Trevor “Playgroup” Jackson’s Output label, he’d gathered enough artifacts on his hard drive to make a chopped-up cosmic-jazz record that could piss off Gilles Peterson-type smoothies (who instead loved it). 2001’s Pause asked how a traditional British Isles band would sound like playing Krautrock. Subsequent remixes for songwriter types like Badly Drawn Boy (who Fridge backed up in 2000) and Beth Orton (whose next record Hebden’s producing), and handpicked tours with Radiohead and the Ninja Tune stable constantly redefined the context.
Rounds attempts all of the above, opening with a heartbeat and what sounds like an enormous digital orchestra tuning up, before mutating into a crisply timbred head-nod. Percussive echoes, thumb pianos, and backward-masking tapes provide foreground thrills. Yet, while this stockpiling refuses to relent, it also doesn’t drown you in Aphex. A drum-track programmer matching Shadow for subtlety and variety, Hebden swipes melodies from old-timers like Pentangle and new romanticists like the computer composers at Morr Music—never less than pretty, intricate, and melancholic, with just enough bass not to sound wussy. He never escapes the art-school European tag, though. High drama builds from gentle piano line and synthetics, groove is an ever present afterthought, and Eno’s airy dynamics haunt it all. Sensitive ones will fall in love instantly; Fat Beats futurists might wait for the Jay Dee remix due later this year.
In contrast, there’s no mistaking One Word Extinguisher for anything but a proper hip-hop LP, what with the strictly eight-input MPC-constructed beats, the guest MCs (Mr. Lif, Diverse), and the answering-machine interludes. Herren gets his above-the-waistline kicks on other projects—Delarosa & Asora’s pretty-on-the-inside laptop escapades, Savath & Savalas’s one-man multi-instrumentalist jazzercises. Yet Prefuse 73, a moniker cribbed from Herren’s love for pre-Return to Forever electric jazz, isn’t simply undie hip-hop. Even with their inclusion, he has little time for rappers, spending as many minutes slicing their every word into hectic little pieces (“The End of Biters” and “Southerners” both state this method explicitly) as making blip-hop prints for MCs to gloss.
Herren’s writing skills have also taken a future-leap from ’01’s Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives. The rhythms have grown more techy and layered, wilding with drill-happy 16ths (on “Busy Signal,” he and L.A.’s like-minded Daedalus cut up a human beatbox then go machine-gunning with piano notes), or throbbing and crackling out of an electronic ether (the radio-transmission lurch of “Detchibe”) as though he’s been studying glitchy Europeans. Maybe—he now resides in Barcelona. Analog keyboards have replaced outside samples as melodic instruments of choice, levying the brutal joys of the beat with tensions seemingly influenced by scores of soundtrackers like Clint Mansell, whose fast-breath creepiness from Requiem for a Dream the title cut mirrors.
Extinguisher sets a monster pace, and at 23 frenetic tracks, it’s as overwhelming as the 45 minutes of Rounds is user-friendly. Then again, neither falls into the wormhole of great beats and tedium that swallowed mo’ than enough midtempo wax in the ’90s. There’s a resolution here. And while Herren and Hebden’s architectural objectives split somewhere along the road, their need for a composer’s climax unites them in pursuit of a brave new world, with a beach’s worth of source material.
Four Tet and Prefuse 73 play the Bowery Ballroom May 29 and Southpaw May 30.