Tortoise – “The Catastrophist” Review

Posted: by Nick

Post-rock is a term that has become somewhat alienated from its origins. The genre is now synonymous with reverb-slathered ballads, calling to mind melodramatic tremolo guitar leads and thundering drums. The world doesn’t need another ponderous treatise on the true meaning of genre labels, which are only truly useful in idle conversation and rarely have the capacity to describe a dense array of varied and original artists. The point matters here because when people hear Chicago’s Tortoise described as a formative, trailblazing ensemble with ties to the ascension of post-rock, some might find themselves scrambling for a connective thread from this band to, say, This Will Destroy You or Explosions In The Sky. If you are expecting to hear a cinematic wall of sound from this band, you’ve been led astray. But maybe that’s the very best thing.

In short, Tortoise is an ensemble of multi-instrumentalists who have been known to dabble in fusion, prog, dub, and any number of other genres – proving an ability to adapt and thrive in almost any musical environment. Despite this, they are instantly recognizable by their earthy, loose, and tastefully reserved collective voice. On The Catastrophist, Tortoise move even further out from their long revered center, absorbing elements of dance, funk, soul, and even a little surf to create one of their more dynamic and compositionally confident collections to date. 

Right out of the gate Tortoise seem out to stomp a big electric boot on expectation. While this is far from the first foray the band has made into more electronic territory, it is jarring nonetheless for its contrast to more contemplative and patient openers of the past (see “Magnet Pulls Through” from the band’s self titled record). Neither does it hit quite as hard as some others (See “Seneca” from Standards). Instead this song feels more like a patently conventional tune. However that is not to demean its depth. The title track is a catchy, even joyous tune that contains all the instrumental characteristics of early day Tortoise, but sounds more interested in merriment than in mystery.

This playful personality continues on “Ox Duke,” which couples Tortoise’s signature plucking bass and driving, jazz-washed beats with a vacillating synth lead. The subtle mastery of rhythm, a signature strength of the group throughout their discography, is on display here and throughout the album. But already there is a certain solidity that has made its way into the group’s sound – a tightening of the screws that perhaps lessens their alluring vulnerability, but speaks volumes to their symbiosis.

Tortoise could have remained comfortably within the niche they carved for themselves, varied as it has already become throughout a twenty-plus year, six-album career. But these first hints at their outbound intentions are not anomalous. The song “Shake Hands With Danger” is yet another song on The Catastrophist that takes Tortoise into new territory. In this particular case they are brooding and pounding away with a more explicitly aggressive attitude. Never ones to stay in any one spot too long, the following tune is a gentler, more ethereal one that gives the listener the sense of rushing through a dense jungle only to lose your footing and find yourself suddenly sinking into a warm pool, in which all tension slowly drifts away. This is the first stop on the album where Tortoise don’t seem in such a hurry, and it’s nice to know this band can still derive as much emotional power and resonance from a whisper as they can a yawp. 

This album never quite strays into what could be called ‘dance’ music territory, but there is certainly an infusion of flavors that conjure laser light shows and dark clubs with floorboards rattling in slow motion. The movement towards this playful side of the band’s personality is not all that surprising, especially considering similar moves made by their enduring contemporaries. Mogwai’s most recent full length, Rave Tapes, also saw the Scottish post-rock titans move toward electronic, danceable compositions – though on a far more drastic level. While the impulse to include these dance-pop influences is indulged, they are incorporated rather more tastefully and tactfully – and without compromising the band’s identity. For one, there is a great deal of variation in this new direction. The track “Hot Coffee” has a distinctly retro soul to it that calls to mind groovy theme show tunes from the seventies. This song, coupled with the following track (featuring vocals from Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley) stand as the most marked departure from the band’s stylishly meandering roots. These songs bear almost no resemblance to the experimental meditations of their first few releases. In fact, the back half of this record is made up of tasteful and invigorating throwbacks to an era before Tortoise was Tortoise, a feat that could only be achieved by the mature and capable group Tortoise have grown to become. Their comfort is not only in their ability to continue to generate their distinct sound, but to absorb other sounds into it. 

Ultimately this album, as with any other collection Tortoise has released in their lengthy tenure, is best experienced with patience and a vigilant ear. Where some long-term devotees may, at a glance, see something lost of the band they have loved, others will certainly see an expansion rather than a calamity. Tortoise seem to be exploring new territory, but are by no means on a mission of redefining themselves. They are exploring for the joy and excitement of exploration itself. Because they can, apparently, go any damn direction they please.

Score: 7/10