Since their self-titled debut release 15 years ago, Tortoise has proven to be an influential pioneer in the indie post-rock movement. The Chicago-based quintet gained national notoriety with their 1996 release of Millions Now Living Will Never Die, an experimental fusion of instrumental jazz, electronica, minimalism, and dub. However, their 1998 landmark album, TNT, is often viewed as the standard for comparison with respect to Tortoise despite a well-received release in 2001. Seeing that a solid full-length album hasn’t been cut in over five years, fans have high expectations for Beacons of Ancestorship.
I was left with a strange feeling after initially listening to this album. This is not the band I remember from their ’90s growth spurt, and certainly doesn’t compare to their epic release of TNT. On subsequent spins, it is possible to move past some of the superficial beats and delve deeper into the hidden layers that Tortoise is notorious for creating. There is good music on this album, but a lot is lost in a release that vies strongly for club play. Because of this, some of the tracks are saturated with heavy bass lines and predictable instrumental hooks that play against the depth in instrumentation this music has in past times promoted.
Beacons of Ancestorship opens and closes strongly with “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” and “Charteroak Foundation,” but suffers heavily from peaks and valleys. Few of the cuts really allow Tortoise the exploratory behavior they are known for, but those that do slowly melt into a fluid rhythm similarly to Medeski, Martin and Wood’s intricate melodies grown from dissonant sounds. “Giganates” is a strong cut that introduces the listener to the new direction of Tortoise, incorporating their signature elements in a different way. This longer track weaves together the sounds of a sitar and recurrent guitar riffs to create multiple textures before ending with an interesting breakdown. “The Fall of the Seven Diamonds Plus One” is another cut that incorporates a signature Tortoise element: the spaghetti western theme. This track has the feel of a long arduous journey in the vein of “The Good, Bad, and The Ugly,” and incorporates dramatic pauses and tempo changes to convey shifts in action and emotion. “Monument Six One Thousand” is also reminiscent of early Tortoise with the establishment of a fixed tempo and then instrumental experimentation with new time signatures behind the original beat.
Although this release stays true to key elements that have helped Tortoise define their niche, there are stylistic changes in the rhythm creation that move this album in a different direction. If you are coming into this release as an established Tortoise fan, then Beacons of Ancestorship might take some time to grow on you. If you are simply looking for an introduction to Tortoise, then I would strongly urge you to pick up Millions Now Living Will Never Die or TNT as these albums better encompass the essence of this influential band.
Beacons of Ancestorship is out now on Thrill Jockey Records.