Tortoise: The Catastrophist

Nineties post-rockers warp time, stay timeless

Credit: Andrew Paynter

Tortoise were matter-of-fact poobahs of a modestly potent Nineties movement dubbed "post-rock," which was pretty much what their elders called "prog-rock," but with beats refreshingly prioritized over wanky virtuosity and way fewer proto-Game of Thrones fantasy-fiction lyrics. (In Tortoise's case, lyrics were largely ditched altogether.) It was an excellent notion absorbed by a generation of attentive musicians, and it holds up on the group's latest LP. 

Tortoise's anticipation of our retro-electronic-cratedigging-post-everything moment means the palette is less surprising than it once was. Nowadays, their analog synthesizer whines, primitive drum machine sputters, jazz guitar chording and minimal krautrocky rhythms wouldn't sound out of place on a Wilco record – it's nearly classic rock. The wheezing chug of vintage keyboards on "Gopher Island" suggests Beach House; "Yonder Blue," sung by Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley, sounds like a vintage Lee Perry-produced soul jam, but also like Yo La Tengo's own recent recordings (Tortoise ambassador John McEntire produced the group's 2013 Fade).

Yet the Tortoise mix of pelvic trance grooves and jazzy changes remains distinctive. "Gesceap" propels tumbleweed organ riffs recalling Phillip Glass's Einstein On The Beach with sly drum patterns. "Tesseract" is all taut motorik beats and testudinian melody shimmering through reverb clouds. "At Odds With Logic" is slow-motion surf rock impressionism; "Hot Coffee" gets abstract with Deodato's Seventies jazz-funk. The pop gestures are provocative but tentative: A cover of David Essex's "Rock On," with singer Todd Rittman (U.S. Maple, Dead Rider), somehow sounds less avant-garde than the original, rhythmic sleights-of-hand notwithstanding. But as ever, the magic is in the balancing act. "Shake Hands With Danger" sounds like a chill, gamelan-driven take on mid-Seventies Bowie. It makes you wish the Thin White Duke would materialize, grab the mic, and spit 16. But no voice comes.