Back in the old school days of the 90s you learned about music on paper. I, for example, was an avid reader of MOJO: The Music Magazine, a UK monthly full of solidly researched features and well written reviews. I guess it is the mark of a loyal and trusting reader to purchase albums based on reviews; back then by an unknown journalist, nowadays often influenced by less anonymous fellow bloggers.
A 1996 Mojo review that caught my eye was of a faceless Chicago instrumental unit called Tortoise. Their second album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, was newly released and received a glowing report. Having always been partial to yer non-singing, non-dancing album-type music, I looked out for Millions and managed to pick up a copy of the CD not long afterwards.
It did not disappoint. Opening with the twenty-one minute (side-long) ‘Djed’, it was clear that this band created modern sounds —electronica, dub, post-rock (whatever the fuck that is)— while retaining an authentic connection to the electronic, progressive and keyboard-driven sounds of the 70s. I was in heaven. But ‘Djed’ is not a long, rambling, electronic wash; it is full of turns, changes and sections that both surprise and invite. There is the outstanding drumming from John McEntire and any number of whistley, whooshy and percussive sounds. A wisp of accordion rubs shoulders with a vintage electric piano, a vibraphone tinkles over a pure dub bassline, some Phillip Glass-like melodic phrases roll over distorted chords. There is something both wistful and playful at the heart of all this serious musicianship. By the end of the first listen of Millions, I knew I was a fan and I knew I wanted more.
More was forthcoming. Every few years a new album appeared and added to the Tortoise cannon. All were thoughtfully crafted and fascinating. In fact, only the collaborations with other musicians failed to excite.
When I heard Tortoise were cruising to Australia for the 2010 Melbourne International Jazz Festival, I ordered tickets for me and Ms Connection pronto. It was a great night, enjoyed thoroughly by both of us. Although 2009’s Beacons of Ancestorship was the ‘current’ album, the band played a range of material, all of it given extra crunch by heavy feet on the volume pedals. It was also the most mouth-watering display of vintage synths and keyboards I’d seen on stage since Rick Wakeman played the Myer Music Bowl with Journey To The Centre Of The Earth.
Since then there has been radio silence from the band —six years with no new product— and I’ve had to content myself with acquiring vinyl copies of their albums. Of course that has been fun and very satisfying in a decadently consumerish kind of way, especially as Thrill Jockey know how to put out a record: solid vinyl, thick covers, beautiful!
Enter The Catastrophist, the 2016 album by Tortoise. Interestingly, some of this material reworks compositions created as part of a commission to reflect Chicago’s jazz and improvised music scene circa 2010. And there is a refreshing edginess to The Catastrophist, both the whole album and the opening title cut. In fact, this first piece gives a really excellent introduction to Tortoise generally. Rhythms groove and shift, multiple percussive elements meld and sing, there is a sullen intensity lightened by shafts —or maybe shards— of melody.
‘Ox Duke’ is next, more familiar in its repetitive rhythmic patterns and simple, mesmeric melody. What follows, however, is quite unfamiliar to fans of this instrumental band. It’s a cover of the David Essex hit ‘Rock on’. I just love that original hit —utterly, eternally cool. What Tortoise do is add some menace; the backing is almost industrial while the vocals by Todd Rittmann (US Maple / Deadrider) are, in this context, less manipulated than Essex’ original. Still, it’s brilliant hearing Tortoise do a verse-chorus song and owning it thoroughly.
When Devo are playfully referenced in ‘Gopher Island’, all menace is dispersed and it’s hard not to smile when an almost glam drum sound enters… but it’s all finished in just over a minute. Oh Tortoise, you tease!
Side two leads off with ‘Gesceap’ (which looks like it should be an anagram though I couldn’t use more than 6 of the 7 letters), all winding organ and snaky synth over a shifting post-something drum pattern. This, the longest piece on the album, strongly evokes Stereolab, themselves accomplished retro-progressives. After that, the deliciously funky ‘Hot Coffee’ makes you wonder if you have wandered onto the set of a remake of Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, itself a homage to 70s blacksploitation movies. That’s the sort of möbius strip experience Tortoise gives you. Non-orientable yet defined by its own parameters.
I love albums that draw from the history (or perhaps that should read, from the Discogs) of rock —especially progressive rock— yet still manage a clear unique voice. Tortoise indubitably succeed in achieving this. In addition to the artists mentioned, I hear snatches of Robert Fripp, bubbles of MIck Karn, 80s Tangerine Dream sheen, Cluster experimental beats. There is even another song, the Euro-dreampop sounding ‘Yonder Blue’ that could be a 60s film theme.
It’s early days, but I’m thinking The Catastrophist may well become a favourite Tortoise album. Whether it’s the best place to start for those less familiar with the band, I’m unsure.
There is both rock immediacy and cool intellect at work here. Yet there remains something anonymous about both the band and the music. Almost like an exploration of absence, an experiment in depersonalising music. Here is a very contemporary album that also seems timeless.