I'll admit to being among those who had counted Tortoise out: After 2004's becalmed but pretty It's All Around You, it seemed that the post-rock pioneers had succumbed to what you might call the Sonic Youth Problem. Having been so influential in their earlier years, each band seemed either content or doomed to produce a series of diminishing but comfortably familiar returns. But while The Eternal sees SY still trapped in the straitjacket of sounding exactly like what you'd expect a 2009 Sonic Youth album to sound like, Beacons of Ancestorship wriggles free to reveal a Tortoise that not only ducks expectations but one that hasn't sounded this hungry or this satisfying in years.
To do so, they haven't left behind their usual dub, jazz, kraut and minimal influences but instead have leavened them with nods towards everything from dubstep ("Northern Something") to punk ("Yinxianghechengqi") to, err, that one song on Daft Punk's Discovery that sounded like video game church music ("de Chelly"). There is a consistent sound to this album holding all of these disparate influences together, and after the overly polished and smooth It's All Around You it's a nice surprise to find out that Tortoise seem to have a pronounced fondness for fuzzed out synthesizers, distortion in general, and tight but occasionally unintuitive rhythm section interplay.
The five guys in Tortoise have been working together for so well and so long, and are all so individually accomplished, that they can move from the syncopated, sinuous likes of "Gigantes" to the coarsely chopped synthesizers of the brief interlude "Penubra" to the headlong, stop/start charge of "Yinxianghechengqi" without it ever feeling disjointed or unnatural. What really unites the songs here isn't sound or production style or instrumentation, though, is a certain compositional intelligence and, for the first time in years, ferocity.
The first six songs here in particular sound out for blood; unlike some of Tortoise's previous work there isn't a ton of space in these tracks for listener reflection. The soaring, insistent single "Prepare Your Coffin," for example, makes for great driving music but isn't that suited to contemplation. Tortoise never really deserved their reputation as eggheads but here they haven't just rejected the kind of thinking that had people calling them "math-rock," they've obliterated it. The rhythms and repetitions throughout are just slightly too off-kilter for me to say that you could dance to this album, but it will have your head nodding fiercely.
There's an appealingly visceral element to even the slower tracks on this album—the album slows down from the frantic first section, downshifting into a more mid-paced groove—giving the overarching impression that this is Tortoise's most committed, engaged statement, maybe ever. Even It's All Around You sounds better once Beacons of Ancestorship reveals it to be just an album and not The Way Tortoise Sounds From Now On. Of course, neither is this record, given how restless and hungry they still seem to be, but as long as they can keep making albums that possess the fire and verve of this one, Tortoise will remain not just pioneers but paragons.
Buy Tortoise - Beacons Of Ancestorship at
Tracklist: Tortoise - Beacons Of Ancestorship 01. High Class Slim Came Floatin' In
02. Prepare Your Coffin
03. Northern Something
07. The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One
09. Monument Six One Thousand
10. de Chelly
11. Charteroak Foundation
Other Thrill Jockey reviews