The more you play the new Tortoise album the greater it is – the less weird/curveball it seems. Now this is true of any album, pretty much. But it’s worth mentioning right off, because everyone is going to tell you how different this is – largely because it’s an album driven by synth lines and – for essentially the first time ever: actual songs – singing, even.
But the synth thing, first. It’s still Tortoise exploring parameters, shifting their shape as they move, finding new footing, the opener here, the big, bold title track, feels like Kraftwerk surging on into John Carpenter’s Starman theme, the bus being driven by Gary Numan. But jazzy sloshes of the hi-hats arrive straight after, on Ox Duke.
This is Tortoise’s least-jazz offering to date. Which will thrill as many people as it will bug I should think. But it also highlights a) the weird prejudices held against jazz as a concept/genre and b) the great skill of the players in Tortoise. If they really wanted you to believe they can do nearly anything with music then The Catastrophist is where they get to show it, without ever seeming like they’re showing off. It’s a sea-change, yip. But one similar to Mogwai’s Rave Tapes – you still recognise the band beneath the sound that’s hovering and shimmering above; you can trace their fingerprints if you ever needed to.
The first (real) big surprise – and it’s killer-good too – is the cover of David Essex’s Rock On, featuring U.S. Maple’s Todd Rittmann on lead vocals. But it’s really not that much of a surprise if you’ve been listening to Tortoise for more than one album, it whisks you back to when they guested/ghosted behind Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy on his album of covers.
Rock On’s great line, “Where do we go from here?” is probably the mantra that rings out from this record. What will Tortoise do next? And isn’t that exactly what you want to be asking, or have the band asking, when they’ve been around a quarter-century. So many bands do the same fucking thing again and again and then add water so as to rinse, repeat, dilute…
Not Tortoise. The band’s first record in seven years, just its seventh overall, and there are so many lovely moments, from the short sharp busy buzz of Gopher Island to the Gamelan-meets-Primus of Shake Hands With Danger and on through Gesceap’s duelling synth lines where minimalism meets math-rock and if that sounds unlikely it’s the sound of bands like Battles stripped of any latent or overt gimmick, it’s simply great musicians seeking out new ways to find and form interesting (sometimes complex) music.
Another vocal highlight is Yonder Blue featuring Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo. Tortoise does a great job of approximating Summer Sun-era Yo La, and Hubley’s distinct nearly-croon is a joy to take in within the context of this album.
Tortoise formed – or were defined, at least – in the early wave of post-rock and what could be more post than the music of The Catastrophist. It asks questions then goes off to seek its own answers, it keeps listeners curious without ever agitating fully, it shows clues that we’ve been in these areas before (Tesseract) and even traces around its own past (Hot Coffee) but the closing track, At Odds With Logic, has all the tranquillity of the “chillout” music of a decade and a half ago, but none of the vacuity. That’s the real strength of Tortoise and The Catastrophist then. This album feels vital. This band has always seemed vital, seemed like they wanted to feel vital. And then, just as you’ve nestled in to the lovely, loping closer it turns toward the doom of metal. Well, it is called At Odds With Logic.
Marvellous group of players. Wonderful album. Yet again.