Tortoise has a habit of musically shapeshifting throughout the course of an album. Even by those standards, though, The Catastrophist is packed with ideas. As the story goes, the record was built from five compositions that were commissioned by the city of Chicago in 2010, when the group was asked to "compose a suite of music rooted in its ties to the area's noted jazz and improvised music communities." Having transformed those "open-form" themes (made with plenty of space for improvisation and solos) into album-ready songs for The Catastrophist, Tortoise then filled out the 11-track record with a smattering of creative whims.
After the opening title track and "Ox Duke" reacquaint you with Tortoise's angular guitars, roomy drums and layers of synths and electronic rhythms, The Catastrophist takes its first left turn. A cover of David Essex's '70s hit "Rock On," the already bizarre song is taken further into mutant pop with the help of singer Todd Rittmann. Tortoise's version is laced with slithering rhythmic noise and off-kilter atmospherics, and yet effectively pays homage to the original's sluggish, slap back-fueled chug.
The Catastrophist delivers a few more unexpected gems. "The Clearing Fills" is a charming and dreamy composition in the vein of Brian Eno's Another Green World, which builds an array of jazzy guitar and piano chords around a miniature Casio rhythm and lightly brushed snares. "Hot Coffee"'s funky, astral lounge music takes clever turns into darker corners, and "Yonder Blue" brings another vocal contributor into the mix, enlisting Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley to add her sweet, simple voice to the piece of slow piano pop. Taking a page from the standard Tortoise playbook, the intertwined tiers of fuzzy synth, jagged guitar and Krauty drumming on "Gesceap" make for one of the LP's biggest highlights.
This variety means that those who remember Tortoise's heyday fondly will find a handful of songs to suit their tastes, while those who follow the group because of their consistent evolution might only find select moments satisfying. The twists and turns can be compelling, but they make The Catastrophist feel somewhat lopsided, with scattered ideas too disparate to congeal as a cohesive listen. For a band that's been at it for almost 25 years (a huge accomplishment in itself), it's encouraging that Tortoise doesn't struggle to grow, and furthermore, are unafraid to risk stuffing a few too many experiments into their records.