Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship

By: Dennis Cook

Listen to this loud.

From the siren whine and skydiving dub drop of the opening notes of "High Class Slim Came Floatin' In" on through the delightful analog stroke and circular spin of closer "Charteroak Foundation," there's a strong sense of funky mischievousness to Tortoise's sixth album, and it's best heard at skeleton vibrating volumes for maximum efficiency. A true original's original, the band moves with the tight, limber motion of healthy muscle under smooth skin on Beacons of Ancestorship (released June 23 on Thrill Jockey). Like their increasingly heady live shows in recent years, Tortoise operates freely in a world almost totally of their own making here, and what distant ancestral voices remain - the ferocious inquisitiveness of Can, the fried circuit aural appeal of early Eno, the brainy architecture of Phillip Glass – are akin to the ruins of Egypt or Old Europe, a presence admired and acknowledged whilst life thrives and morphs around the foundations.

There's an athletic, groovy undercurrent to Beacons that resonates favorably with the manic energy of Mahavishnu Orchestra (or leftwards in time to the speedier, grimier corners of early Aphex Twin). You will shake your behind to this if you crank, say, "Northern Something" and bust out your Target Dollar Bin strobe lights, white hot pants and get into some lubricated grappling. To follow that romp with a breakbeat splattered bit o' Middle Eastern scented gorgeousness like "Gigantes" is Tortoise's singular genius. The album stretches to include the Ventures-esque dream dirge of "The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One," the robots waltz of "Minors," the late night, big city freeway swoon of "Monument Six One Thousand" (close your eyes and you can easily imagine this being the soundtrack running in Prince's head while he tools around pre-dawn Minneapolis in his Batmobile…) and the 'lectric Miles-meets-ELP jazz pulse of "Prepare Your Coffin." And as diverse as it is (and feels), the whole shebang just hangs together SO beautifully. Over time they've discovered an underlying rhythm inside their music, a heartbeat or steady breath that unifies all the wide reaching beams they fire off. One piece to another, these wordless-but-quite-chatty instrumentals form a current that carries one perhaps more strongly than any other single Tortoise release to date.

It also doesn't hurt that the guitars bite down a touch harder this time or that the drums have a bit more glide to their stride. Turns out that waiting five years between 2004's It's All Around You and this one paid off in big dividends. It's not like this group ever slouched but Beacons comes on with the tongue-in-ear candor of a new fling rather than guys who've been at their own unique, hard to categorize or shill thing for nearly two decades. From the miniature bedroom electronica perfection of "Penumbra" to the distortion addled hardcore choogler "Yinxianghechengqi" and everything on either side, Tortoise sound fully engaged, announcing in fantastically divergent yet holistically wholesome ways that there's life aplenty in this band. More specifically, Beacons of Ancestorship is their most exciting, potentially influential album since 1996's uber-inspiring Millions Now Living Will Never Die.

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[Published on: 7/20/09]

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