The Catastrophist

There are times when the quality of an album isn’t reflected by how much you want to talk about it to your friends, by how many different lyrical subtleties you can draw from it on repeated listens or how many adjectives you can cram into your gushing Sputnik Music review. Sometimes the sign of a great album is reaching its end and having absolutely nothing to say.

This is the challenge that presents itself to me when trying to describe The Catastrophist, the latest offering by Chicago post-rockers Tortoise. The album isn’t in any way disappointing; in fact it’s probably their most engaging and consistent release since their seminal 1998 album TNT. The problem here is that the band, who have now been creating expansive genre-spanning jams together for 25 years, have nowhere new to go. They manage to tick every box that might appear on the checklist of a discerning listener with military precision: mischievous synths fading in and out where least expected? Check. Tight drum beat propping up a skittering soundbed of sampled beats? Check. Bass so deep and oily you keep expecting to find a fully preserved mammoth stuck in it? Checkmate.

Much like the family of terrapins I posted my grandmother for Christmas, Tortoise keep pushing the envelope without ever breaking out of it. Since they helped plough the fertile field from which post-rock grew in the early 90s the band have lost nothing. As ever drummer and de facto band leader John McEntire guides the collective with a steady hand along corridors of sonic containment that prevent their jazz-tinged style of improvisation from ever unfurling into the individualistic chaos of other instrumental progressive bands. But, while Tortoise have continued to plod amicably along their self-ordained path of musical discovery, the world has moved on without them. This is not their fault. Take a look at the musical cul-de-sacs that the bands they have influenced (Battles, Air, Mice Parade) currently languish in and you’ll see that you can only explore every nook and cranny of your own fascinating musical island for so long before you have to start revisiting spots. Unless you’re Mogwai, who have a metaphorical getaway helicopter.

The Catastrophist is Tortoise distilled: ‘Ox Duke’ reuses the tropical Bond villain hideout vibe of ‘Crest’ from 2004’s It’s All Around You and takes it from Dr. No up to Blofeld, ‘Tesseract’ extracts the unsettling beach sound of TNT‘s ‘Jetty’ while leaving the very 90s acid house drums behind, ‘Hot Coffee’ takes all its cues from the inferior forest funk of ‘Charteroak Foundation’ from the band’s previous album, Beacons Of Ancestorship. None of it is boring, nearly all of it is predictable.

The main exception to this overall impression comes in the form of an unprecedented two vocal led numbers from the singerless collective: ‘Yonder Blue’, sung by Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley, and ‘Rock On’, a rollicking take on David Essex’s 70s glam rock hit sung by Todd Rittmann. The former, like all slow dreampop songs with androgynous vocals, is ruined by the fact that Beach House shit all over the competition in that field. The former, however, is the crowning jewel of the album and shows what Tortoise are capable of when they choose to be experimental in format as well as form.

Is there a solution to Tortoise’s high quality stagnation? Possibly not. This is a band that have sweated out enough innovation in their time to flood a small safari park, so they could spend their twilight years doing little more than sipping cocktails backstage at Godspeed You! Black Emperor shows radiating smugness. Instead they continue to exercise their unique synchrocity by refining the eclectic sound they’ve spent a quarter of a century building. Tortoise may no longer sound like the future because the future happened, but as long as they keep on hitting the levels of perfection they reach on tracks like ‘Shake Hands With Danger’ and ‘Gesceap’ then complacency doesn’t sound so bad.  

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