Tortoise – The Catastrophist

Tortoise - The Catastrophist

Tortoise – The Catastrophist

At this stage in their quarter-century or so long career, you could forgive Tortoise a little predictability. Having forged a string of the most enduring albums to have emanated from the Chicago post-rock scene in the early-‘90s, you could understand a little auto-piloting at this juncture. Certainly, if you just judged the record by its cover, with its slightly daft and perfunctory Photoshop amalgamation of the band’s five faces instead of the usual art curating front-sleeve, The Catastrophist could be capturing Tortoise on cruise-control. To some extent this is possibly the case – but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Reknitting strands of material originally conceived as far back as 2010, for a City of Chicago-commissioned jazz and improv culture celebration project, this latest and typically long-in-the-works record largely sticks to the familiar patterns of latter-day Tortoise releases. Thankfully though, this doesn’t mean revisiting the dry austerity of 2001’s still-divisive Standards, but it does mean extending upon the synth-led explorations and more live-sounding aesthetics from within 2004’s underrated It’s All Around You and 2009’s bustling Beacons Of Ancestorship.

Hence, the burbling and prowling titular-track, the fizzing and skittering “Ox Duke”, the Suicide-gone-squelchy primitivism of “Gopher Island”, the duelling drums and analogue electronics of “Gesceap”, and the fidgety space-funk of “Tesseract” and “Hot Coffee” are all creditable examples of the band locking into taut galvanised grooves. Beneath such benevolently dominating pieces a touch more diversity simmers. This leads to the gorgeous pellucid strains of “The Clearing Fills” (which recalls both labelmate Sam Prekop’s eponymous solo album from 1999 and the blissfulness contained within Brian Eno’s Another Green World LP); a brief flashback on “At Odds With Logic” to the twang-jazz tracts inside the band’s own Millions Now Living Will Never Die long-player; and the Steve Reich-meets-prog-rock percussiveness and pomp of “Shake Hands With Danger”.

Perhaps more divergent from formula are two guest vocal-led cuts; which both explore less traversed sides of the Tortoise lexicon. Whilst perhaps an act of ironic post-rock purist taunting absurdity, inviting in U.S. Maple’s Todd Rittman to add his slurred tones to a rubbery but still surprisingly faithful art-funk make-over of David Essex’s strangely mutant 1973 hit “Rock On” successfully reignites the quintet’s sense of reinterpretative invention, displayed most overtly on 2006’s covers album collaboration with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. A less fan-challenging appearance from Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley on the co-penned languid “Yonder Blue” provides the dreamy ying to the testosterone yang of “Rock On” and is equally as important in preventing The Catastrophist from sticking too closely to self-set modus operandi.

Whilst as a whole The Catastrophist doesn’t surpass the high-watermarks of the band’s almost unimpeachable early-years pioneering, it does stand-up well as a solid and consistent collection to add to the post-millennial phase of the Tortoise canon, with just enough refreshed moves to keep the rust and cobwebs at bay.

Thrill Jockey