After the rather expeditious pace with which the band released music in their mid-’90s heydey up into the early 2000s, it has taken Tortoise an unprecedented seven years to release The Catastrophist, a period of time which, starting with their 1994 self-titled debut and concluding with 2001’s Standards, was once enough for them to release four now-classic records (including what are probably their two most revered albums, Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT). Still, the band’s resilience has proved nothing short of impressive over the years, exemplified most acutely by the distinctive Beacons of Ancestorship, released in 2009 after a five year recording hiatus (not counting a collaborative covers album featuring Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), a record which effortlessly picks up right where Tortoise last left off. Unlike for most bands, long periods of inactivity seem to have little or no effect on the quality of Tortoise’s studio work.
The recounting of this legacy of is important because The Catastrophist is not the type of album artists are expected to make after years out of the spotlight. Of course, Tortoise is not a band that suffers through much fan speculation or press hype during times of quietude, a rarity for a recording artist at their level of success and reverence, even among post-rock groups (consider the music media’s fevered reaction to Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s 2010 reunion). Granted, this relative public inattention to the band’s movements can only be a boon for them and the album. Because of this, The Catastrophist can be treated as the gratifying surprise from Tortoise’s sustained silence that it is — not as a return to something that has been forgotten, evolved past, or otherwise lost.
With that in the back of listeners’ minds, The Catastrophist holds up as a pleasant and satisfying record. It takes after Standards and Beacon of Ancestorship’s eclecticism, drawing favorably from the band’s vast pool of both contemporary and classic inspirational sources and ably condensing them into a cohesive and consistent product. Like Tortoise’s other later-stage records, The Catastrophist places synthesizers and digital percussion sounds in a more prominent role; indeed, the eponymous album opener kicks in immediately with a bold swirl of showering synths and drum machine beats before sliding into a more typical post-rock ramble after a mere 15 seconds.
That kind of playful juxtaposition is a major element of The Catastrophist’s charm. It’s manifested in the latent dark energy, stilted beat and cold ambient electronics (including the interjections of a subtle wobble bass), which turn David Essex cover “Rock On” into curious and unexpected album highlight amid some of the familiar: extended jazzy jam sessions, quiet, velvety interludes, and rowdy instrumental hard rock. “Shake Hands With Danger” touches on a similar effect with its crushing drums and discordant melodies reminiscent of Beacon of Ancestorship’s heavier moments while “Hot Coffee” takes its rhythmic cues from the funkier side of early new wave. These songs are the nuanced heavy-hitters at one dynamic extreme that reveal The Catastrophist as an energetic and dexterous album just as vital as anything the band have done before.
Elsewhere, The Catastrophist takes its time with patient builds and long phrases of apparent immobility that should be comfortable for longtime Tortoise fans. It’s most noticeable in the mulling pace of “Gesceap”, the seven-and-a-half-minute pre-release single which takes at least five full minutes to evolve to its apex, riding along on a calm but disorienting polyrhythmic groove until a thick distorted guitar channels into a swirling synthesizer arpeggio that eventually drills into the bottom of the track. “The Clearing Fills” is a timid interlude in which tender piano and guitar chords trade-off with one another for an extended four-and-a-half minutes, while the goofy electro groove of “Gopher Island” implants some sonic and rhythmic variety into the surrounding delicacy. Album closer “At Odds With Logic” concisely dismantles the record’s motifs with a colorful yet relaxed beach-ready swing that eventually degrades into a doomy drone version of its melody, bringing The Catastrophist’s two extremes to a fulfilling composite.
Even within this familiar framework, Tortoise find space on the album for nuanced surprises, whether in its songs with a slight math rock bent (most notably “Tesseract”) or the lo-fi indie ballad “Yonder Blue” featuring vocals from Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley. Whatever the terms on which one approaches the new Tortoise album, it provides a comforting beacon of familiar sonic playgrounds. The Catastrophist is not the over-confident reinvention or the rote revision of outmoded past albums that one might expect after a band’s seven year recording hiatus; it’s simply the next Tortoise record, and a rather good one at that.