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Tortoise re-release series, part 6 – Beacons Of Ancestorship (revisited)

Thrill Jockey

After the, quite frankly, cheesy and banal efforts from Tortoise on their previous album It’s All Around You, it was understandable if one found themselves without their hopes raised for Beacons Of Ancestorship, released in 2009. However, it comes as a relief to report that this is a vast improvement on the album beforehand; and is also a work that sees the band branching out into new territory without the tendency to repeatedly fall back on familiar tropes like they did on Standards from 2001.

They open confidently with “High Class Slim Floatin’ In,” all La Düsseldorf-esque motorik drums and fuzzy guitar riffs. The Krautrock references don’t end there as the synth melodies resemble Harmonia. In fact it appears that Tortoise had dragged out all the analogue electronic gear in their possession for this album; and it’s a very good thing that they did. With the omission of a couple of pieces that go nowhere (“Minors,” “Monument Six One Thousand”), and the cringe-worthy second track “Prepare Your Coffin;” an awful throwback to the cheese that blighted the worst aspects of their œuvre; the album is a fresh and invigorating take on the kind of rock-tinged electro that came in the wake of ‘new wave’. As awful as that can sound, please rest assured that it isn’t what you think; so please bear the rest of this review out.

Both “Northern Something” and “Gigantes” have rhythm and percussion with a Latin influence to them; the former marrying analogue squelches with a touch of Samba, and the latter featuring minimal, discrete guitar riffs and warm synth pads. By this point it does really appear that Tortoise have gone out on a limb by genuinely revamping their sound. “The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One” sees the band in their spaghetti western mode, going all Morricone on us again. Whilst feeling like an overused routine, especially in the light on the fresh approach featured elsewhere, it isn’t unpleasant and you feel that you can forgive them this little relapse. After all, this was never an angle of theirs that really grated.

They show their Hardcore Punk roots on the fantastic “Yinxianghechengqi;” a messy track by Tortoise standards where the guitar gets fuzzy and unruly before the whole piece breaks down into a soundscape of bowed, plucked guitar strings and buzzing electronics; a great track. There are two pieces that could be longer, the ambient “De Chelly,” and the jaunty “Penumbra,” with its drum machines and retro sounding synths; but this is a small quibble. Unfortunately they choose something that could be described as typical Tortoise fare to close the album with the unexciting “Charteroak Foundation.” “Chartered Accountant” would have also been a fitting title for this piece. It’s a shame that Tortoise, with the exception of the first two long players, always seem to feel the need to end an album with a whimper rather than a roar. Despite this though, one is left with the feeling that they have listened to an established band take a risk; even if it’s not an enormous one. This change in style was much needed after It’s All Around You and it certainly piques the curiosity as to what Tortoise will deliver next time.

-Jay Harper-

(This album was also reviewed at the time of its release, along with several remixes, here).

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