Crate-Digging: Tortoise – Beacons of Ancestorship

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Thrill Jockey, 2009)

I come before this album in fear and trembling. I kneel at its feet and dare myself to raise an eye toward its mighty visage. The towering monolith, its height barely discernable in the heavenly glow that bathes it, is power. Tortoise, the great creator, wields Beacons of Ancestorship like a five-pronged battleaxe, prepared to smite my unworthy ass to the ground. With sweat glistening on my terrified brow, I reach a trembling finger toward the “play” button, knowing beyond hope that I am now doomed.

I’m going to take a step back here and mention that I’m not really terrified of Beacons of Ancestorship, or Tortoise for that matter, or anything really. (OK, maybe not anything. I’m definitely terrified of bees and wasps. And spiders. Not snakes though.) I think I’m manifesting my trepidation at the language with which I’m going to have to describe this album. Because it’s my language, and I’m not sure the simplicity inherent within is going to do a band like Tortoise justice. Pretend for a second you run into John Coltrane in a bar. (Or, for a modern example, one who’s still alive, let’s say Dave Koz.) What are you going to talk to him about? Jazz? Good luck with that. You’re going to sound stupid. (Well, maybe not in front of Dave Koz.) I, on a similar hand, am going to sound stupid writing about this royal Chicago institution. Let the self-destruction commence.

All jackassery aside – or maybe it’s just beginning, who knows – we really are talking about the royalty of Chicago experimental music in the Tortoise boys. Just look at this pedigree: John Herndon (Poster Children, The For Carnation, Isotope 217), Dan Bitney (Isotope 217, Bird Show Band, Bumps), Doug McCombs (Brokeback, Eleventh Dream Day), Jeff Parker (Isotope 217, Chicago Underground Trio), and the man behind the kit – and behind the boards, scenes, or careers of a bunch of other musicians – John McIntyre himself (My Dad Is Dead, Bastro, The Sea and Cake, The Red Krayola). See? That’s why – if history is any indication, I have a lot to live up to. But, that’s OK. I’m gonna throw caution to the wind and dumb it down right here: This whole Beacons of Ancestorship record? I can dig it.

Between 2001’s Standards and last year’s Beacons, Tortoise was in a bit of a rut if you can believe it – I know, crazy right? – having released the luke-warmly received It’s All Around You in 2004 and the even more luke-warmly received The Brave and the Bold, a collaboration with Will Oldham, in 2006. So the release of new material, and fantastic new material at that, was quite a welcome surprise. The unsuspecting public wasn’t even sure if Tortoise was going to reform – Voltron-like, in all its glory – such was the uncertainty surrounding them. Everybody had a side gig, there was no rush, so why expect anything? I didn’t even care. Tortoise may well have ceased to exist for all the attention I paid them between 2001 and 2009.

But return triumphantly they did. What makes Beacons so involving from start to finish is how effortlessly the lads flit from one style to another, from track to track. And even though they tackle so many different genres, they still come out sounding distinctly like Tortoise. It’s uncanny. And it’s funny too, when the band first hit the scene in 1994 with their self-titled debut, and especially in 1997 with their masterpiece Millions Now Living Will Never Die, they got tagged by the indie press with the “post rock” label, no doubt earned by their incorporation of jazz, krautrock, experimentation, and wordlessness into a rock format. As legions of Godspeed- and Explosions in the Sky-following catharsis junkies now fly that meaningless flag (although I admit it’s an easy descriptor for them), Tortoise truly moved past rock tropes and opened their sound to new ideas and vibes. (And literally too – McIntyre loves him some vibraphone.)

But they sure keep that rock heaviness, as well as endless grooves and funk throwdowns. “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” – title alone winning me over – starts fitfully, stumbling about before shooting into space on a zoned-out cosmic disco trip, synthesizer melodies pulling each other like taffy. If “Slim”’s 8-minute runtime hints at prog, the band delivers with “Prepare Your Coffin,” and although spirited and gooey, the depth at which the scales and chromatics are composed and then shuffled like a card deck would make the most ardent Yes fan blush. The bass-heavy “Northern Something” plays like mutant calypso with several band members contributing to the polyrhythms, and “Gigantes” is a high-wire salsa marathon. Tortoise can charge head down into punk territory as well, the fuzz bass of “Yinxianghechengqi” blowing through all the “sh” syllables that I’m sure are in that unpronouncable word. East meets spaghetti West on the Morricone-esque “The Fall of the Seven Diamonds Plus One,” and the smoky dub of “Moment Six One Thousand” is a great cooldown after a club workout.

There are little things, sure – the back end sags a little bit (dude playing guitar on the last track must have gotten bored repeating that simple pattern), but overall there’s not much to complain about. Tortoise prove that they are indeed our lord and master, and will wipe us off the face of this Earth as swiftly as they brought us to life upon it. Or … something like that. Although they’ll eschew big words while doing it, unlike me, and stick to a big sound. A big, bold, Chicago sound.

RIYL: Do Make Say Think, Stereolab, The Sea and Cake


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