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Beacons of Ancestorship

(Thrill Jockey; US: 23 Jun 2009; UK: import)

There is a penchant with big-sounding instrumental rock bands like Tortoise to claim some sort of cinematic movement on its records. As if each album is a soundtrack to a story we never completely get, a musical trip from here to there. And it would be easy to fall into that trap with Beacons of Ancestorship, Tortoise’s new album, and its first true full-length in five years. Opener “High Class Slim Case Floatin’ In” has the feeling of an introduction—something of the click and rattle of a rollercoaster car in ascent—but to label it just a sign of things to come, a warm-up to the album at large, is to miss not only the tracks vitality, but the point of the album as a whole.

That first track is also the album’s longest and stuffed full of disparate and compelling ideas. There’s the distant rumble of stripped-down rock that yields to the spacey atmospherics of fuzzed-out, arena-sized synths before the whole track cuts out and reboots as a wonky, cool stumble through electronic ruts and stops. The awkward shift eases into its own soulful bump before expanding into a teeth-bared rock attack that, in all its fury, relents to an affecting sunburst of high keys and low, thudding bass.

In short, it’s a lot to take in, even for eight minutes. Its movements mesh but not perfectly. And that is how it is track to track for Beacons of Ancestorship. Listening close, you can hear the similarities from one track to the next, but there’s no clear connection, no sense of travel. This album, and each song on it, is very much of the moment. The band is happy to live in a sound its made, steeps in equal parts organics and electronics. And this feeling of now that runs through the album makes each new track a surprise, not a deviation from a path, but a leap to another spot in a blank, timeless space, making each new sound on the album somehow both utterly surprising and inevitable.

“Prepare Your Coffin” towers some big guitar notes at its start, but is really a lean, scrappy rock number, punctuated by some mechanized bursts. “Gigantes” runs an awkward computer buzz over a tight, syncopated beat before a ghostly line of frayed notes connects the two. The undeniably strange “Northern Something” ends up being unfortunately timely, as the track sounds like dancehall as composed by a slew of defeated GM factory machines. The brief “Penumbra” would, on any other album, be a segue between two other tracks. But here, it is its own lonely dance party, something as toe-tapping as it is isolated.

The connections between these tracks are almost incidental. It sounds very much like Tortoise, but very little like each other. The impossibly titled “Yinxianghechengqi” may be the most representative track on Beacons of Ancestorship if only because it sticks out like a sore thumb. It is a scuzzy, untethered rock song, and everything from drums to bass to squalling guitars is coated in a fuzzy scum. On an album of chilly computer atmospherics, this is blood-pumping basement rock until the bottom falls out, and then it seethes atmosphere, as if the entire band is heaving to catch its breath.

There are moments like this all over the album—where you’ve settled in, and then Tortoise jars you out of it again. Unlike its earlier album, the brilliant Millions Now Living Will Never Die, the new album has very little in the way of negative space. There are none of that album’s rabbit holes to fall down. Part of this fuller sound might be in the five years between records, in the building up and overflow of ideas. But what this fullness also does is call attention to the gap between tracks. That second of silence from one track to another—that little break—assures us this is not a point-A-to-point-B record. It’s a series of isolated sounds that each might be big—even huge, cinematic—on its own, but they don’t mesh together in some expected and easily explained way.

A veteran band like Tortoise has pushed past those cinematic expectations—some spawning from that vague term “post-rock”—and emerged with the immediate and bracing sound of Beacons of Ancestorship. This album is what happens when the cool edges of electronics meets with the blood surge of artistic creation. And when those two fronts collide, and the storm starts, just stand there, and feel each drop as it hits you, and go ahead and get soaked.


Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.

Tagged as: tortoise
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