Imagine yourself lying on your back. You’ve found a patch of grass to support you as you stare up to the sky. It’s a sunny day, but the sky is buried behind the green and brown canopy of tree branches. You see glittering flowers sprinkled in the distance and the foreground. You hear the wildlife playing, a nearby river splashing, the cool wind that’s rustling the leaves, the toppling of rock. And just maybe, the individual beauties of your surroundings unite in a prismatic refraction: the spectrum of light. This is the cover art for Four Tet’s latest, Sixteen Oceans, and it’s not far off from how the album sounds. Four Tet (Kieran Hebden) has carved out his own lane of success in electronic music since the release of his breakthrough record, 2001’s Pause. His career has been filled with experimentation, backed by a masterful sense of sound’s tactility and groove. Now 42, Four Tet has just released his 10th album, Sixteen Oceans. 16 oceans, 16 tracks, each track presumably an ocean, right?
In just under 55 minutes, Sixteen Oceans offers up its own polychromatic forest to explore. Every texture feels tangible; every synth glimmers iridescent; each drum hit conjures every-day sounds programmed expertly into jittering house rhythms. These distinctive qualities are nothing new for Four Tet. It’s no secret that the plucked synths and gliding vocal samples are techniques he’s been using for years. However, the album is much less club oriented than his single-based output or 2012’s Pink. It’s a more serene dance record, similar to the successes of There Is Love in You and Beautiful Rewind. Sixteen Oceans opens with the fizzling, garage-like rhythms of ‘School’. The drums sustain a glassy FM synth lead, cycling through for most of the song as the chords beneath it raise that same melody to new heights. ‘Baby’ joins the ranks of ‘Parallel Jalebi’ as one of Four Tet’s poppiest tracks. Ellie Goulding’s glitched vocals flutter elegantly past the hushed synthesizers, as the shuffling beat rolls on forward. We’re later jolted into the catchy strut of ‘Teenage Birdsong’, and while it’s not often the flute makes its way to the foreground of a dance track, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.
The bells and chimes on these tracks are surely recognized as Four Tet signature timbres by now, but they also establish his approach and sound palette for the rest of the record. Arpeggiated chimes, emotively plucked leads, a robust dance rhythm built on intricate percussion hits, and glassy chords swelling underneath for support. It’s a consistent methodology he’s employing here, but it leads to a lot of similarities in the sound, structure and melodies of tracks. Look to your left and you’ll find ‘found sound’ samples of birds and trickling water. And while using similar sounds works to create a thread of unity throughout a discography, they can feel overused.
Four Tet does, however, use this sonic palette in some exploratory ways. ‘Harpsichord’ stands out as a melodic, meditative, yet dramatic piece, similar to Daniel Lopatin’s most recent film score work. ‘Romantics’, on the other hand, brings in glassy and digital-feeling arpeggiated guitar picking part way through, to leave the rest of the song feeling more like a mid-2000’s pop/R&B backing track than a dance tune. On ‘Green’, we’re led into a drumless terrain by a choir, only to be superseded by a pointillist painting of analog synths. The vocal samples on ‘4T Recordings’ reverberate into a vast and open wilderness, like some of the greatest portions of Morning/Evening. Like we heard on his previous record New Energy, Four Tet uses shorter tracks to bridge songs together. While this sometimes can be a great way to reinforce the album’s flow, ‘Hi Hello’ shouldn’t be that short whereas ‘1993 Band Practice’ feels like a blip in the flow of the record. On ‘Bubbles at Overlook 25th March 2019’, we’re exposed to a minute of synthetic bubble pops, running water samples, and some chords that are pretty distant in the mix.
Some of the album’s greatest highlights can be found on ‘Insect Near Piha Beach’. The track kicks off with an aggressive, driving rhythm. It eventually makes way for a kaleidoscope of synthetic plucks that multiply and take flight, only to wash out and be replaced with a lingering set of vocal samples. Those plucks make it back for the outro, albeit reversed and isolated. But the beauty can be found in the trills of that plucked synth; a technique Four Tet’s used similarly on ‘Two Thousand and Seventeen’ off of New Energy. However, the sounds on ‘Piha’ coalesce uniquely into a scene of radiant beauty, not unlike the titular beach.
About 3/4 into the record, the sounds and programming/playing techniques on the record start to feel unvaried. Four Tet has proven himself as a master of electronica due to the way he’s developed the techniques he uses here: the skittering drums, the evolving chords, the plucked FM synths, and the female vocal sample ascending to brave heights. However, their overuse on this album turns many peaks and valleys into levelled ground. While the redundancy may make parts of this album blur together as one piece, the question must be asked: is this one big ocean, or sixteen individual ones?
Well, it’s Four Tet’s most sonically cohesive album since 2015’s Morning/Evening. It recalls the best timbres that he’s used with great success throughout his career. It also has some really catchy tracks to groove to. And while you’ll find a lot of the same sounds and melodic stylings on many of these tracks, it doesn’t have to detract from the record. Like the forest you imagined yourself laying in, there’s a whole biosphere here ready to take you in. If you listen closely, each song can indeed be an ocean of its own. It just depends on your propensity to squint and look for the details.