If A.I. taught us anything, it’s that Haley Joel Osment is one creepy little bastard. But there was also something in there about machines and anima and the difference between human emotion and programmed feeling. Though it may not always be clear to others, we often think before we act, whereas machines act when told. If art is a search for truth in the realm of humanity, then Kieran Hebden, the man behind Four Tet (and sometimes-guitar player for Fridge), may be hampered by the inherent limits of his electronic equipment. But despite the mechanical origins of Rounds, it feels and sounds mortal, replete with true emotion and complete with beautiful flaws. Its personality may be intentionally programmed, but it’s sincere, and that’s about all you can ask.
Hebden’s dense compositions impart the sense of a personal struggle. Haphazardly arranged elements comprise the first layers of these songs, a sort of challenge for Hebden to overcome the noise obstacles. The opener, "Hands," begins with something akin to Matthew Shipp in a blender, but slowly uncoils into a stunning, moving mass, a strange brew of subtraction by addition as every sound further simplifies the song. This beauty is offset by the harsh regression of "She Moves She." Its simple drum beat and guitar loop are periodically invaded by a separate channel of sound; imagine listening to a soothing track while your kid brother randomly plugs and unplugs one speaker hooked up to his thrash metal album. Where "Hands" is a logical path towards triumph, "She Moves She" embodies frustration and self-destruction.
But just as there is something curiously romantic about the tempestuous process that results in a Jackson Pollock masterpiece, Rounds is full of vitality. There is much here that’s abrasive and unforgiving if taken on its own. Hebden, however, assures that these fragments are balanced by something consoling and familiar, as the industrial cadence of "My Angel Rocks Back and Forth" battles with a harp, just before strings enter to deal the final blow.
The album begins with the sound of a beating heart and ends with a squelch of static. While the worlds those two noises represent are distant at present, they are getting closer every day. What crucial leap lies between them has not yet been discovered, but the 45 minutes separating them on Rounds is a good place to start.