Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid Tongues

[Domino; 2007]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: free improv, experimental electronic, noise, art rock
Others: Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten, Cabaret Voltaire, Suicide

Considering the consistently high quality of Kieran Hebden’s output as Four Tet and his contributions as guitarist for the seminal English post-rock band Fridge, it’s hard not to accept Tongues, his third recording with New York-based modal jazz drummer Steve Reid, as something of a disappointment. Consisting of Hebden’s real-time electronic improvisations juxtaposed alongside Reid’s rhythmically experimental percussive technique, Tongues finds Hebden departing even more dramatically from the subdued, pastoral hip-hop template he so meticulously engendered as Four Tet. In fact, there is nothing even remotely redolent of hip-hop to be found on the album, which abounds with copious amounts of improvisational electronic clamor coupled with elements of free jazz percussion.

With its primary emphasis on jarring, chaotic electronic patterns originating largely from analog sources, Tongues (excepting perhaps its preponderance of live drumming in contrast with its electronic aspect) recalls the dissonance and brazen experimentation of the proto-industrial noise bands of the mid- to late-'70s on several fronts. Case in point is “Rhythm Dance,” perhaps the most fully realized, engaging track on the album, which in many ways recalls the Industrial Records-era Sheffield scene. Much as the progenitors of the early industrial music establishment created frequently atonal music emancipated from its rhythmic constraints as a reaction to the inherent melodicism and structural integrity of the rock idiom, Hebden’s improvisational electronic meanderings and conspicuous dearth of melody seem to suggest his engagement in a conscious withdrawal from his origins as an electronic composer/producer and indie rock musician. The textures and electronic figures on Tongues are rife with a desultory quality that serves as a considerable frustration on the part of the listener, in spite of the routinely inventive disposition of the tracks. The arbitrary nature of these 12 sinuous compositions makes for an initially intriguing listen that, lamentably, does not hold up well over repeated spins.

For his own part, Steve Reid undertakes a noble task in attempting to follow the circuitous trajectory of Hebden’s spontaneous compositional idiosyncrasies. It is greatly to his credit as a musician that Reid intermittently allows order, in the form of tempo, to materialize from within the nebulousness of Hebden’s cacophonous tumult, as on “Superheros” (sic). But at times Reid loses pace, and his stuttering, off-kilter beats come off as an unavailing effort to keep up with the din. Many of the tracks arbitrarily end or simply fall apart after a certain point (or at least give that impression), revealing even further the dichotomy between Reid’s contributory portion of the recording and the arrhythmic abstraction of its electronic components. The fundamental division between these two characteristics stands out as a glaring contradiction that, in a perfect world, may have solidified into a more cohesive work. But despite its misfires, Tongues does make for an intriguing listen, and the record is punctuated with the occasional highlight, including what is perhaps the most imaginative and eerie rendition of “Greensleeves” ever committed to tape. Throughout its duration, however, Tongues has the effect of becoming less and less compelling as the relative gimmickry of its concept wears off.

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