Beacons of Ancestorship
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Circa twenty years since its founding, Tortoise releases its sixth full length recording, Beacons of Ancestorship. The band’s first LP of new material since 2004′s It’s All Around You, Beacons also follows The Brave and the Bold, an eclectic collaboration with William Oldham on a multifaceted selection of pop covers, and 2006′s lovingly curated career-spanning boxed set A Lazarus Taxon. The members of the band have also been busy touring together and separately inhabiting a plethora of side projects and other musical outfits. Thus, while the five-year wait is understandable, one’s glad to see this project come to fruition. Beacons of Ancestorship is a rare beast for a mature effort. Strongly identifiable as Tortoise’s, it shows the group mindful of its legacy while simultaneously pushing at their musical boundaries.
In and of itself, this is remarkable; Tortoise’s polystylistic approach to music-making has, from its inception, encompassed a wide variety of amalgams and juxtapositions. But from the album-opener, we are reminded that the postmodern, post-rock, jazz-meets-minimalism catchalls that the press has long employed to try and pin down the band have always fallen woefully short of fully descriptive. After an undulating drum ‘n bass duet intro, with a killer riff introduced in the bottom octave, “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” unfolds section after section as fragmentary episodes; a mélange of IDM club signatures, minimalist reiterations, polymetric rhythmic assemblages, and liberal doses of motoric, edgy synth loops, proggy string pads, and rock guitar riffs alike. The one constant amidst the kaleidoscopic changes: the evolving beat structure is still visceral enough to keep your head bobbing throughout. The coda wears its Reich on its sleeve, with phase-like shifts modulating insistent arpeggios into an incandescent shimmer.
“Gigantes” also weaves its way through an impressive assortment of polystylistic material; similarly, rhythmic underpinning allows for a host of distantly related sections to coalesce. Less successful in this regard is “Yinxianghechengqi,” where the use of juxtaposition blunts some of the more powerful buildups of the piece. Still, its thunderous walls of sound demonstrate an affinity for avant exploration that can take the group on thrilling musical excursions. “deChelly” is a all-too-brief example of delicate soundscaping.
The impressively fluid and virtuosic “Prepare Your Coffin” and “Penumbra” are somewhat reminiscent of the outstanding fusion of jazz and progressive rock found on David Sancious’s albums in the Seventies. Riffs played in guitar and bass, doubled in octaves, ornately metered yet constantly propulsive drumming, intriguing chord progressions and extended keyboard voicings, and soaring guitar solos placed up top. Both fusion and prog have been much-maligned over the years – post-rock’s continuation of their confluence has been as well – and the zesty yet airy arrangements of “Coffin” and “Penumbra” suggest that the detractors of these genres have, at best, painted with too broad a brush.
“Northern Something” is one of the cuts that pushes against the aforementioned boundaries of Tortoise’s language. Edgy, reiterated riffs and a militaristic drum refrain create a bellicose (perhaps current events-inspired?) ambience. “Monument Six One Thousand” adds Middle Eastern-inflected rhythms into the equation, pitting their undulating flexibility against brash quarter notes articulated as piquant rhythm guitar downstrokes. “Minors,” stands in stark contrast to these two. A carefully shaped, elegantly rendered piece, its funky rhythmic underpinning sidles up to lyrically deployed solos, affecting harmonies, and the album’s most winning melodies.
An excellent installment, well worth the wait, Beacons of Ancestorship is easily the best material Tortoise has released since 1998′s TNT.