Tracking Tortoise‘s ironically ramshackle history from jazzy post-rock forebears to Chicago music scene godfathers is often difficult to follow. Past and present members of the group have been involved in countless other acts, including (but definitely not limited to) Slint, The Sea and Cake, Chicago Underground, Zwan and Isotope 217. Guitarist/bassist Jeff Parker and drummer/electronics-er John Herndon weekly play as part of a combo in Wicker Park’s ultra-hip “Asian-Fusion” restaurant and lounge, Rodan (with fellow Tortoise utility-man Dan Bitney occasionally helping out). Rumor has it that a couple of members spend some time tending bar at the also ultra-hip Rainbo Club (which isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, considering the place used to host weekly Isotope 217 shows).
But two constants have remained at the band’s core, despite their varied styles and releases: supremely tight, technically amazing, damn near perfect rhythms and an utter mastery of atmosphere. Whether it’s the frenetic slap of “The Taut and the Tame”, the haunting chimes of “Ten Day Interval” or the galloping whinny of “Dot/Eyes”, there’s never a moment where the members of Tortoise sound anything but in control, which is something you wouldn’t expect from a “post-rock band” that utilizes more ambience, dub and jazz as they do rock.
The road paved by Standards and 2004’s It’s All Around You (the band’s most recent official release, not including 2006’s cover album collaboration with Wil Oldham and the Lazarus Taxon rarities box set), had the band moving away from the sparse, scattered sound of their legendary albums Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT, towards fuzzy, yet cluttered soundscapes. From the brilliant opening blast on Standards, it was clear the album would be full of bombast. While a lot of Tortoise’s music had used electronic samples and sounds as background or added depth to traditional instrumentation, All Around You dropped the electronics into the fore. And Beacons combines the best of these two trends into one great album.
Only a band like Tortoise could pull off an album opener with a name like “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In”. And pull it off they do; a prickly yowl backed by a thumping rhythm section is quickly taken over by a concrete synth melody before falling away into a stuttered, jazzy swing. But the fuzzy synths return to dominate the scene, a whorl of psychedelia that wouldn’t be out of place on Animal Collective’s new disc, if the backbeat were a little weirder. The guitars that open “Prepare Your Coffin” (another badass track name) crunch and soar like old Tortoise records, but just a little more compact. The African rhythm at the beginning of “Northern Something” is suddenly pitted against a sputtering, quacking synth-fuzz-attack.
Where so many jazz-rock fusions go flat, Tortoise soars. Instead of falling into one specific type of jazz or rock, the group is clearly comfortable and familiar with the genres enough to reach into different sub-genres. “Gigantes” opens with a latin-esque guitar line and a quick shuffle, but later finds a moment of bop clarity where an on/off radio feedback interacts with arching, plinking synth lines. “Yinxianghechengqi” kicks off, literally, with a scream, before rumbling through a punky, yet still jazz friendly tune reminiscent of John Zorn’s Naked City. “Monument Six One Thousand” features a slick, dubby rhythm section walloping away as an achy guitar line drops in at exactly the wrong moments in the time signature, a blissfully awkward and where bobbing your head on the threes seems so right.
None of this should be of any surprise to a Tortoise fan, though. The group keeps altering their sound in little ways, but never obfuscating their vision. The myriad little changes and unexpected moments will keep long time fans very happy and should win over a few new listeners as well.