Chicago experimentalists’ latest covers wide territory, with mostly positive results. Tortoise is one of the rare groups that defy easy classification despite their status as founding fathers of the late-'90s post-rock boom. Their newest album, Beacons of Ancestorship, is a winsome marriage of that knack for genre cross-pollination to an eminently accessible pop-eletronica tenor.
Returning after a five-year gap (which, granted, included a box set and a collaborative record with Bonnie "Prince" Billy), Tortoise confronted a pair of age-old musical questions: does anyone really care about an experimental rock group after 15 years, and does said group actually have anything to say after that length of time? After all, the sound of rock's future circa 1994-1996 was beginning to sound tired by the time of 2004's It's All Around You, and the sense was growing that Tortoise should call it quits and begin accumulating enough years of inactivity to eventually be rediscovered, remastered, and reunited. Beacons of Ancestorship neatly squashes all those questions and assumptions, revealing a band that is just as fascinated with sound, just as intrigued by its myriad possibilities, and just as unerring in presenting those ideas in the form of entertaining instrumental music as when it debuted in 1993. The time signatures are constantly shifting, the lights of vitality and inventiveness Tortoise displayed 12 years earlier are completely undimmed, and the reference points for their music are constantly expanding (on tap here, among the dub and Krautrock and minimalism and jazz, is surprisingly abrasive punk for "Yinxianghechengqi").
People always ask if you remember where you were at a certain junctures of history, every now and then the topic changing from 9/11 to Princess Diana's death, or for those of us slightly older the day John Lennon died or the last days of Thatcherism. My own personal favourite, however, probably doesn't figure on many of these "where were you?" type questionnaires; you see, for me, the most significant recollection of recent years is remembering exactly where and when I was the first time I heard 'Atlas' by Battles (happy hour at The Social for those who care). Without doubt, to these ears at any rate, those nine minutes of sheer unadulterated bliss happen to be the most unique potpourri of musical genius created so far this century.
Between 1996's groundbreaking Millions Now Living Will Never Die and 2001's pacesetting Standards, Tortoise garnered a level of influence in indie music that almost rivals that of Animal Collective today. Post-rock was one of the most active threads of 90s indie, and Tortoise not only set the bar for it, they leaped right over it. While many of their peers interpreted post-rock as "rock, but boring," they hybridized completely novel forms.
As the band that led the charge during the great post-rock scare of the mid- to late '90s, Tortoise has had a lot to live up to for quite a while now, regardless of the fact that the members of the band would probably be very happy if they never heard the term "post rock" again in their lives. Tortoise continued to expand and innovate all the way through 2001's Standards, but even stalwart fans found 2004's It's All Around You to be swimming in waters that seemed a bit too tepid. Since then, there's been a busman's holiday in the form of a covers album with Will Oldham and an admittedly excellent boxed set of previously unreleased material, so Tortoiseheads have been drumming their fingers in anxious anticipation for some time now, wondering if and when their heroes would pick up the ball they seemed to drop early in the decade.
Ten years ago I bought Come On Die Young, Mogwai’s underrated follow-up to Young Team. The album marked the start of a good two to three year fanaticism with all things “post-rock”, a term that had been coined to incorporate all kinds of mostly instrumental guitar-based music. If that sounds like a vague description, it was. Invented by a media too lazy and uninventive to think of anything better, it included such diverse acts as Godspeed You Black Emperor, Labradford, and Gastr del Sol and became the catch-all term for any music that both shirked the traditional indie song-writing template, while still gaining the fervour of indie rock fans.
There is a penchant with big-sounding instrumental rock bands like Tortoise to claim some sort of cinematic movement on its records. As if each album is a soundtrack to a story we never completely get, a musical trip from here to there. And it would be easy to fall into that trap with Beacons of Ancestorship, Tortoise’s new album, and its first true full-length in five years.
You can't overstate the influence that Chicago post-rock pioneers Tortoise have had on contemporary indie rock, but their work since their 90s heyday hasn't really blown minds as it once did. It's been five years since their last full album, and while the dub, jazz and rock signposts are still front and centre, you can hear them trying to find new possibilities within their trademark sprawling instrumental soundscapes. [rssbreak] Things start off quite promising with the shifting time signatures and searing synth riffs of High Class Slim Came Floatin' In, but soon they're flirting awkwardly with jazz fusion cheese and meandering jams.
Review Summary: Beacons Of Ancestorship is delicately balanced on seesaw, at any moment shifting for better or worseNot too long ago, Tortoise reminded everyone why we love their distinct blend of post-rock with A Lazarus Taxon, a three disc box set of rare material. That retracted the rekindling of their timeless albums TNT and Millions Now Living Will Never Die, where Tortoise essentially grew to what they are today. Now we find Tortoise stepping away from their marimba set and welcome a new wave of synthesized hooks.
Lester Bangs would’ve hated Tortoise. Asked to define good rock’n’roll in his last ever interview, Lester offered this semi-elegy: “I guess it’s just something that makes you feel alive. It’s just like, it’s something that’s human, and I think that most music today isn’t. And it’s like anything that I would want to listen to is made by human beings instead of computers and machines.” Tortoise, of course, does not play rock’n’roll, and they at times want to make their live playing appear as if it’s been made by a machine, in some kind of attempt at electronic sublimation.