Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship
Thrill Jockey

How do I love thee, Beacons of Ancestorship? Let me count the ways: your unpredictability, for one (listening to the recording the first time, it's impossible to predict what the next track will bring); your economy, second (Tortoise's six full-length weighs in at a mere forty-four minutes—a far cry from the exhaustion induced by eighty-minute releases—leaving the listener wanting more when it's over); and the robustness of your attack, third (in contrast to the fastidiousness and fussiness that tended to straitjacket some of Tortoise's past recordings, the latest is refreshingly raw, even messy at times). It's an interesting recording in other respects, too. There are no band photos (not a surprise, given past releases) but this time there's no personnel or instrumentation listed either. In other words, the focus is squarely on the music and on the band as a collective entity, with other detail treated as peripheral.

The material resists easy stylistic pigeonholing. Certainly there are krautrock elements, plus there's dub, funk, hip-hop, techno, and punk but no one style dominates, and the music ends up being best labeled “Tortoise” rather than anything else. In tact, the band reinvents its sound to such a degree in some tracks (e.g., the synth interlude “Penumbra”) that someone given a blindfold test would fail to identify the group as Tortoise, something I suspect the band would welcome. One of the album's distinguishing features is the prominent role played by synthesizers which are often at the front-line alongside the band's robust drum attack. Which doesn't mean Jeff Parker's guitar playing isn't given an occasional spotlight; his roar helps power “Prepare Your Coffin,” while the Old West samba, “The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One,” affords him an opportunity to add desert twang to the album. At times, it sounds like Tortoise must have given Inner Mountain Flame an extra listen or two before laying down the material. The raw noise jam “Yinxianghechengqi,” for example, has at its center a blistering theme that roars like one of the ecstatic melodies for which the original Mahavishnu Orchestra was renowned.

The suite-like “High Class Slim Came Floatin' In” opens the album with a heavy synths-and-beats showcase, with a fabulously funky marriage of loose drumming and burning analog synths that eventually segues abruptly into a lurching episode that's equal parts roots reggae and hip-hop head-nod. What a pleasure it is to hear Tortoise rip into “Prepare Your Coffin” with such unselfconsciousness and aplomb. The track is the album's most joyful and exuberant cut, and the passion with which the drummers and Parker in particular attack the material makes the tune an album standout. Elsewhere, the kinetic percussive thrust of “Gigantes” receives an exotic shot in the arm with the inclusion of hammered dulcimer, plus there's grimy electro-funk swing (“Northern Something”), lurching electro-boogie (“Monument Six One Thousand”), and even church an organ-synth interlude (“de Chelly”) one would be more likely to credit to Vangelis than Tortoise. For all we know, the band obsessed over every micro-second of the album but it sure doesn't sound like it. Instead, the album, the band's first new release since 2004's It's All Around You (not counting the 2006 career retrospective box set A Lazarus Taxon) sounds as refreshingly raw and spontaneous as Tortoise's post- TNT opus Standards.

July 2009