Beacons of Ancestorship

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Label: Thrill Jockey

What often keeps Tortoise’s finer work from true greatness is a refusal to veer from the strict aesthetic path of producer and drummer John McEntire. Unlike his other notable post-rock projects, namely The Sea and Cake, Tortoise shuns vocals and more traditional rock structures in favor of instrumental explorations of melody and sonic textures. The group also operates in a hive-like fashion, trading the individuality of its members for a more complete fulfillment of McEntire’s jazz, world and art-house tastes. This style can be hit or miss despite its admirable dedication to this vision, and resulted in disappointing mediocrity on 2004’s It’s All Around You. Much like their shimmering and deliberately-paced Millions Now Living Will Never Die, this year’s Beacons of Ancestorship finds Tortoise in their best form.

Awkwardly-named opener “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” is the album’s finest example of why Tortoise shines here, serving as a hypnotizing hook into what follows. The track builds a videogame guitar riff over a heavy bass line, expanding and repeating this sound to the point of rousing tension. In a fashion that much of Beacons repeats to good effect, this static buildup then drops out into a wonderfully satisfying change in rhythm, playfully jumping from variation to variation until the album’s tracks bleed seamlessly together. While some records may let individual tracks speak more for themselves, Beacons is better for not doing so. Tortoise has long been able to find that comfortable balance between teasing tedium and resolution through variations, and here those structural choices feel natural and draw the listener through a wisely brief 40-some minutes.

In fact, it’s easy to listen to Beacons as a whole and get lost in the connected tapestry of its individual pieces. The down-tempo “The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One” segues its brooding guitar into the slightly more lively “Minors” without skipping a beat, and church-organ hybrid “de Chelly” flows nicely into lingering closer “Charteroak Foundation.” But the album isn’t just effective because Tortoise knows how to properly order tracks. These instrumental studies of electronic sounds and evolving melodies find a voice in the organic movements of their structure, yielding the character and depth vocals can often provide, without straying from Tortoise’s established sound.

With Beacons Tortoise has bounced back from its moderately-received It’s All Around You by providing songs that can be appreciated as singles while effectively tying them together into a much more worthy whole. Post-rock isn’t known for being exciting or necessarily easy to digest, due to this penchant for serving the larger scale, but Tortoise seems to have figured out how to navigate to more listenable waters through a sea of others’ boring releases. They’ve provided enough noisiness to satisfy indie-rock fanboys as well as the kind of sleek variations even the jazz-illiterate can appreciate, and wrap both of these elements into a complete package with a great deal of finesse. Because of this, Beacons of Ancestorship might just be the record that converts approving listeners into returning Tortoise fans. More importantly for such a stylistically steadfast group, it proves Tortoise’s once-innovative methods still can yield welcome results.

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