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Tortoise – Beacons Of Ancestorship

Tortoise are a maddening band. There’s no doubt that they’re massively influential and have produced some amazing music over the years, but of all their albums, the only ones I return to regularly are Millions Now Living Will Never Die and It’s All Around You. No surprise with Millions… as it’s widely lauded as a classic, but It’s All Around You is commonly panned for being smooth and overproduced. That’s exactly what I like about it – it feels like an album conceived as a whole, so I always play it end to end and love every minute.

I find that their other albums contain stunning moments, but don’t cohere as a front-to-back listening experience. The bass-on-bass weave of their debut is great in parts, but sounds underdeveloped; TNT has some of their best songs, but also a lot of disposable stuff; aside from the transcendent ‘Seneca’, Standards feels like a remix record, and I hate remix records – which is why very little of A Lazarus Taxon really grabbed me.

Beacons Of Ancestorship had me at the record store on the day of its release thanks to the mp3s of the opening pair of tracks, ‘High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In’ and ‘Prepare Your Coffin’, both of which are excellent. ‘Slim’ has one of those wonderfully recorded loping Tortoise beats, a fat synth riff, and plenty of meandering passages that keep you wondering where it’s going to head next during its eight-minute run-time. And ‘Prepare Your Coffin’ makes me wonder whether John McEntire picked up some ideas from Pivot while mixing their 2008 album O Soundtrack My Heart – it sounds like a track they could have recorded. This is a very good thing: fuzz-guitar melody, spy-theme urgency and crisp beats combine to produce a catchy, thrilling three-and-a-half minutes.

I furrowed my brow when I first heard the ragga squelch of ‘Northern Something’. I’ll give Tortoise one thing – they have a sense of humour! But this two-minute exercise in bass bogling could have been developed into an excellent song rather than just thrown in as a zippy vignette. Thankfully, the song that follows is probably one of Tortoise’s best yet. ‘Gigantes’ combines a thumping beat that bounces across the stereo field with a lovely hammer dulcimer motif, and evolves beautifully through a Jeff Parker guitar solo, some stuttering textures, then a fuzzy ending with another keyboard melody stacked on top. There’s so much going on in this track, so masterfully handled, that you wish Tortoise had paid such close attention to dynamics and detail elsewhere.

‘Penumbra’ is another short and silly electronic vignette, and the kind of thing that would no doubt sound hilarious when you’re stoned, but in the cold light of day it’s just a half-idea that should have stayed on the Soma hard drive. ‘Yinxianghechengqi’ is the perfect antidote to such daft electronic dabbling – the sound of Tortoise playing in a room, rocking hard. They rock so hard that it sounds like the roof is going to cave in as they pile distortion onto bass fuzz onto drum clatter, until the song sounds like their entire discography mashed up, warped and played in double-time. It’s good to hear the band pushing against the pristine meniscus of McEntire’s Soma studio bubble with some hilarious out-rock posturing.

I’ve read a lot of criticism of ‘The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One’ as Tortoise on autopilot, but it works for me, especially as the calm after ‘Yinxianghechengqi’s storm. Doug McComb’s guitar twangs, chains clatter to the floor, and plenty of atmosphere oozes through, like some futuristic noir film. ‘Minors’, on the other hand, definitely sounds like Tortoise on autopilot in a bad way, and for this reason it’s probably the album’s weakest moment.

‘Monument Six One Thousand’ is an interesting idea that almost comes off – a wandering guitar line competing with a squelchy loop for the listener’s attention. Then, ‘de Chelly’ perhaps betrays another Pivot influence – or is at least part of the recent trend of bands going gaga over ’70s kosmische synth sounds. Finale ‘Charteroak Foundation’ then pits a wistful guitar arpeggio against head-down bass and drums, until the guitar lags so far behind the rhythm section that it starts to really grate. Intentional? Dunno, but it mars what is otherwise a really strong song.

So, Beacons has some amazing material, some daft dicking around, and some forgettable songs. When it’s good, it’s really, really good; when it’s bad, it sounds like a band trying to be something they’re not. But even then, to hear Tortoise pushing the envelope is a lot more entertaining than most bands at their best – so I’ll no doubt keep returning to this album and start warming to the weaker moments; maybe even fathom why they’re there…



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