Fans of Roberts' past productions shouldn't be put off by this slight musical turn. Fences is still a very Dial affair when stripped to its essentials—consider the buoyant synth melody that anchors "Shoes," or the glowing interstellar churn of "Palace"—but with less of a steady house beat. Here, Roberts flushes out his sonic palette with a variety of percussive switch-ups and novel instrumental flourishes, like detuned pianos, cellos, violins, and odd-sounding guitars, all of which lend the album a decidedly Far Eastern tone.
One of the first elements to stand out with Fences is its unconventional rhythmic backbone. "Mussels," for example, rides a very acoustic-sounding clatter into a swirl of twitchy synths. On "Calico," a stumbling drum pattern undercuts a moaning, almost pleading intro to create something murky and vaguely menacing. "Braids" begins with a brief gong stroke before segueing into a gorgeous piece of Japanese folk music that resets the album's pace briefly, only to resume with the throbbing jazz drums and stirring tones of the title track.
"Blanket" is a change in the weather, steelier and more withdrawn. It's an interesting contrast to the placid experimental touches Roberts has layered into his increasingly nuanced take on deep house, one that often resembles the work of the ambient artist Susumu Yokota. And ultimately, that's what you have to appreciate about his development here. Fences is very much the sound of John Roberts, but a John Roberts who's fascinated by the sonic revelations of travel. One of the sounds Roberts collected abroad was "a cedar soaking tub overflowing in Kyoto." I can't think of a better image for the exotic warmth of Fences.