When it emerged in the early 1990s, Chicago band Tortoise was lauded for its singular instrumental approach that incorporated aspects of pop, jazz-rock fusion, Jamaican dub, movie soundtrack music, funk, and whatever else the members felt like bringing to the mix. As this decade creeps to a close, is the band as creative now as in its early days? Or has it settled into a comfortable (and predictable) niche?
Beacons of Ancestorship, its sixth album and first in five years, proves that Tortoise isn't just coasting on its rep. To begin with, the members still play fabulously as an ensemble, with no particular player ever dominating. The pensively dreamy "The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One" could be from an early 1960s French New Wave film, setting the scene for a clandestine nocturnal meeting, the atmosphere borne on a cloud of sultry guitar twang. "Yinxianghechengqi" begins with a storm of dirty, distorted electric bass evoking the Minutemen and Ruins at their most pissed off, before evolving into progressive rock played with hardcore punk fury, then into sleek, slightly angular, cosmic fusion in which John McLaughlin and Chick Corea specialized (circa 1970-74), before giving in to overindulgence (i.e., wank). "Gigantes" combines hip-hop-like rhythm and sampling with a chiming dulcimer (recalling Ennio Morricone's music for spaghetti Westerns), soaring electric guitar, and prog-rock synthesizer textures guaranteed to make fans of old-school prog (think Yes, Camel, Caravan) moist with nostalgia.
Overflowing with variety and flair, Tortoise still has the right stuff. (Thrill Jockey)
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