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Fast track

Four Tet gets Ecstatic

For many, electronic music is a cold art, the technology and stuttering samples representing a mechanical, inhumane sound. Certainly, early pioneers such as Can, Faust and Neu explored those darker themes, but it's not necessarily implicit to the style, as electronic artist Kieran Hebden demonstrates.

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Hebden, aka Four Tet, has been working in the form for more than six years, ever since he turned a hiatus from his English post-rock combo Fridge into a full-time career with the release of his debut solo album, 1999's Dialogue. From the outset, Hebden's work has been characterized by a warm, organic sound. Working from his home desktop computer, he samples real instrumentation and turns it into something entirely different.

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"I'm just recording sound ... anything, really — me playing guitar, sounds off the TV, or bits of records or something — and messing around with them in the computer to make a new sound out of it," Hebden says. "A lot of instruments you hear aren't the instruments you think they are. ... Like I'll take a guitar and treat it in a certain way to sound more like a harp. The record sounds quite natural, but if you listen closely, you start to realize that everything on it is totally humanly impossible. A guitar line will be playing, then it will suddenly be played backward for a bit. I like having that little intricacy and detail in there."

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Four Tet was initially inspired by avant-garde jazz musician Alice Coltrane. When his Fridge bandmate Sam Jeffers brought home Coltrane's album, Journey in Satchidananda, it changed Hebden's musical life.

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"It was a sound that I had been wishing had existed for years, and it opened up a whole new world of possibility for me," Hebden says. "That idea of really deep, sort of hypnotic grooves with really beautiful, delicate melodies over the top — it became a blueprint for what I wanted to do."

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Four Tet's second album, 2001's Pause, was a breakthrough. Hebden had been listening to a lot of folk music, which informed many of the graceful melodies on the album and led journalists to dub his music "folktronic." Hebden grew frustrated by the tag, particularly when 2003's Rounds was described similarly, despite a far lower quotient of folk music. Still, it was characterized by a gentle groove that created a comparable mood. So with his latest, Everything Ecstatic, Hebden chose to go in the other direction.

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"It's important to me that music always changes and evolves and kind of moves on. I was never interested in repeating myself. The last record I made was more introspective, and I wanted to make a record that was positive and outgoing," Hebden says.

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Everything Ecstatic changes the pace dramatically and emerges as a distinctly more beat-driven affair. Stuttering percussive clatter implodes against blissful, slowly morphing textures like a Diebold safe dropped into a pond, rippling with deep grooves. It's an aggressive, sometimes dissonant album, but the spates of white noise, throttling Kraut-rock rhythms and battling instruments conspire with Hebden's rich, melodic imagination to create a vibrant, pulsing album, which he recorded in just two months.

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"I wanted to make a more lively sounding record, and I didn't want to have time to kind of calm down and become too studied. I wanted it to sound a bit chaotic," Hebden explains. "I wanted to capture the excitement and energy of doing things quickly."

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The album explores territory first staked out in his live performances, which continue to be a big source of inspiration. When Hebden recorded Rounds, he saw the album as an ongoing improvisation, and he continued to explore the material throughout the tour. Earlier this year, he did improvisations with jazz drummer Steve Reid (Miles Davis, the Rippingtons) in Paris and London. Afterward, they headed into the studio and recorded two albums of material to be released sometime next year.

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