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Tortoise: Beacons Of Ancestorship

Troy Collins By

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Beacons Of Ancestorship is the first release in five years from revolutionary post rock innovators Tortoise and the sixth full-length record of their almost two decade existence. A longstanding Chicago institution, Tortoise single-handedly spawned the post rock genre in the early nineties—a post punk fusion of Krautrock, minimalism, dub, electronica, world music, and avant-garde jazz.

In addition to their vast array of influences, virtuosic multi-instrumentalists Dan Bitney, John Herndon, Douglas McCombs, John McEntire, and Jeff Parker have long championed a collective ideology that favors unorthodox instrumental combinations. Paired vibraphones, dual drum kits, and banks of analog synthesizers have defined the band's sound since day one—a singular aesthetic that has inspired countless imitators.

Their seminal efforts, Millions Now Living Will Never Die (Thrill Jockey, 1996) and TNT (Thrill Jockey, 1998) are long-form masterpieces that helped redefine the modern concept album. Standards (Thrill Jockey, 2001), It's All Around You (Thrill Jockey, 2004), and their collaboration with singer Bonnie "Prince" Billy on 2006's eclectic covers collection The Brave And The Bold (Overcoat) found them delving deeper into song-craft and away from epic soundscapes. Beacons Of Ancestorship continues this trend, unveiling an eclectic mix of genres scattered across a brisk 44 minutes.

Providing a shadow of things to come, "High Class Slim Came Floatin' In" opens the record with a jump cut collage of styles, transitioning from supple grooves and jagged funk to throbbing Motorik climax. Rousing seventies fusion revivalism powers "Prepare Your Coffin," while new avenues are explored on "Northern Something" and "Gigantes." A complementary pair, the former is an infectious dance tune that sounds like grimy Arabic disco on steroids, with the shimmering acoustic guitar refrains and percolating polyrhythms of the later making a fitting addendum.

The album peaks at mid-point with "Yinxianghechengqi," a raging slab of overdriven electro-punk that suddenly ends in an ambient coda, followed by the Spaghetti Western-themed "The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One." Cloaked in reverb drenched guitar and cinematic sound effects, this evocative piece finds the quintet in familiar territory; a retrospective approach that continues through the remainder of the record. Although Tortoise's distinctive approach may sound less revolutionary now than it did a decade ago, the watery distortion, oscillating pitch bends, and crisp beats of "Minors" and "Monument Six One Thousand" still impress with textural and melodic invention, especially the prismatic counterpoint of the opulent closer, "Charteroak Foundation."

The group's detours into experimentation over-reach on occasion. A few incidental pieces like "Penumbra" flirt with trendy synth EFX, lending a dated air to certain passages. However such minor missteps don't affect the majority of the album, which sounds simultaneously forward thinking and backward-looking.

Eclectic but always intriguing, Beacons Of Ancestorship is a welcome return from post rock's flagship ensemble, drawing upon the band's past glories while continuing to cast an eye to the future.


Track Listing: High Class Slim Came Floatin' In; Prepare Your Coffin; Northern Something; Gigantes; Penumbra; Yinxianghechengqi; The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One; Minors; Monument Six One Thousand; de Chelly; Charteroak Foundation.

Personnel: All instruments played by Dan Bitney, John Herndon, Douglas McCombs, John McEntire, Jeff Parker.

Title: Beacons Of Ancestorship | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Thrill Jockey

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