Tortoise – Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey/ Spunk)

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Chicago trail blazing quintet Tortoise have a unique way of making the listener feel stupid. It comes with their seeming inability to stick with a consistent sound from album to album. At one time, perhaps around Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996) they seemed to be the quintessential post rock band, like the term had been constructed for them alone. And whilst the copyists copied their sounds and made the label ‘post rock’ a term of unimaginative derision, Tortoise moved on. It’s when you’re greeted with a new Tortoise album you’re never quite sure, the newness gets you, part of you want the triumphs of previous albums re arranged and presented new. But they don’t do that. All you get are vague hints – if you’re lucky. Each album feels like year zero, Tabula Rasa with the odd feeling of de ja vu.

The first thing you notice about their sixth album, Beacons of Ancestorship, is that the sound is big, the bottom end punches, the twin percussion attack is taut and very present in the mix. Yet John McEntire’s production work has always been very clean and crisp, and being a drummer, he’s always had an ear to the rhythms. The second thing you notice are the synths. They’re big, textural, almost furry, aligning themselves and twisting in and out of the motorik rhythms. It’s an austere album, as if the hints of tenderness or even melancholy from previous outings have been devoured and we’re left with the machine, a mechanical organism pumping out this glacial genius. Innovative skilled musicians combined with sublime production skills often equal the emotionless wank of jazz fusion, and there’s no doubting that Tortoise do posses an element of this. It’s just that their wankery is so damn interesting, complex and at times even endearing.

It’s not until the seventh track The Fall of Seven Diamonds that we finally hear a recipe that we’ve heard before, guitarist Jeff Parker’s reassuring twang a laid-back spaghetti western noodle, the first concession to the past and it’s like at this moment they took a deep breath, unchecked their emotions and decided for the remainder of the album to let elements of their back catalogue merge with the relentless Krautrock percussion and synth blast of the previous pieces. McEntire’s production is almost like another band member, sounds are abstracted, blown out, peaking, buzzing and wrong, yet add a further layer of complexity (and interest) to the tunes. Here is a band attacking, poking holes in their music from numerous directions. There is a scientific element of chin stroking to the music, yet Tortoise have always had that, even on their crazier rock outs from previous albums. Beacons of Ancestorship is no different. It’s the sound of the future through a prism of the past and the first track here the minimal electro prog rock out High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In will blow your brains out. Once you hear it you will understand. It may have been five years but Tortoise are back and like always the rest of us will follow.

Bob Baker Fish

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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.

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