Tortoise has never been a group to rest on any laurels. Though certainly its members have recognizable styles of playing — from the varied beats produced by dual drummers John McEntire and John Herndon, not to mention the added percussive activity by Dan Bitney, to the clean, crisp guitar lines of Jeff Parker to the deep, affected bass lines of Doug McCombs — Tortoise has changed from album to album every time. With every release over its 25 years as a group, Tortoise has challenged listeners to dare to listen closely and engage with their instrumental jazz-driven, electronica-inspired progressive instrumental rock (Albums that have stood the test of time: Tortoise – ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die’ ). Their’s was never ambient music, though it has often been pigeon-holed into the genre of post rock.
Seven years after producing one of their more defiant albums to date, the noise-heavy Beacons of Ancestorship, Tortoise was coaxed back into activity by its hometown of Chicago, whose officials tasked them to create a suite of music that paid homage to the city’s musical history. The result is The Catastrophist, a bold return to form that leaves none of the group’s itches to experiment with melodies, effects and reverberating noise unscratched.
The album opens with a bit of a psyche-out via the title track and a squeaky repetitive synth melody that sets a false sense of an electronic heavy record but whooshes out of the way to make way for one of Parker’s luscious, tranquil guitar lines and McCombs’ solid, throbbing base against the high-pitched hum of shimmering organ work and crisp drumming. It sounds like classic Tortoise, with breakdowns allowing for some simple organ work augmented by resonant, low-vibe work (it’s mixed low, but it’s there— get on your headphones). With the album’s second track, “Ox Duke,” and its understated swelling of organs, electronics and subtly rumbling percussive work that even enters a loop of bottom heavy bass that recalls the early sonics of Tortoise, you might be forgiven to think that this is a record set on returning to the band’s early nineties roots.
But then comes the group’s rendition of David Essex’s 1973 hit “Rock On.” The bass is so heavily processed in the deep end, you don’t hear it as much as feel it in the vibration of the speakers. Still, it keeps the integrity of the original with Dead Rider’s Todd Rittman taking vocal duties. Rittman could have held back on the vocals a bit, and the added voices accentuating certain words in opposite speakers can be a bit over the top, but the band still plays with a mischievous restraint, adding whizzing effects, rumbling chords and creaks so heavily processed that seem to tear at the insides of your sound system.
This is the real beginning of the new album, and Tortoise remain coy and playful throughout, fully embracing a sort of new-found inspiration. Once again the band members play around with electronics and processed effects that are transporting, most notably on the album’s most tranquilizing track, the patiently developing, ticking and shimmering “The Clearing Fills.” The band released a digital single ahead of the album, “Gesceap,” which featured brilliant layering of shifting organ drones and repetitive guitar work that builds into a multi-melodic wall of sound that recalls the early work of Philip Glass. “Hot Coffee” features a funky, grooving bass line and an urge to break out that speaks to the group’s roots in fusion. There’s also an additional track featuring vocals, “Yonder Blue.” This time Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley contributes. It’s a pretty song that melodically glistens with subtly affected instrumentation fitting snugly with Hubley’s hushed, sleepy voice and even features a warm vibraphone solo during its finale.
The Catastrophist is a welcome return for Tortoise and proves that a band too often categorized as an example of a certain scene and era of alternative music can still prove vital by staying true to its sound, but also pushing at its limitations. Most of all, they sound like they are having fun.
The Catastrophist will be officially released Friday, Jan. 22. Also being released on that date are reissues of Tortoise’s back catalog on colored vinyl. Visit their artist page for each title. Pitch Perfect PR provided an mp3 version of the album for the purpose of this review. Images of the front and back cover of the album are courtesy of Tortoise. The band is currently on tour. For dates visit their page, here. Nope, no South Florida dates for us. 🙁