This Tortoise article was written by Sam Forsdick, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Macon Oxley.
Tortoise are one of those bands whose influence belies their popularity. Their 1996 sophomore effort, ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die’, is regarded as groundbreaking for its roll in shaping the sound of post-rock, and the five-piece instrumental outfit continued to defy genre conventions with their avant-garde exploration of electro-jazz on 1998’s ‘TNT’. However, it seems that as the years have rolled on Tortoise’s penchant for innovation has sadly waned, making it difficult to listen to ‘The Catastrophist’ without getting the unerring sense that you’re revisiting covered ground.
‘The Catastrophist’ bursts into life with a playful synth motif that sounds as if it’s been taken straight from an ’80s arcade game, but this shot of energy is short lived. The track soon mellows out as Tortoise quickly settle into the tight percussion and melodic guitar that they have become renowned for. This is a recurring feature on ‘The Catastrophist’ – for every glimmer of ingenuity there’s ten minutes of meandering synths and minimalist guitar.
It is difficult to pinpoint why there is such a lack of direction and excitement in the majority of the tracks on the album. The answer possibly lies somewhere in the fact that ‘The Catastrophist’ is built from five compositions, commissioned by the city of Chicago, to promote its vibrant jazz and improvisation scene. The tracks were therefore originally constructed with plenty of space for other musicians to solo over. Despite some tweaking to the arrangements, the music seems to lack focus without the input of other musicians. The overall result is an album consisting of little more than interesting backing tracks and, although Tortoise are accomplished multi-instrumentalists in their own right, the album could have benefited from the addition of other musicians to contribute a solo and break up some of the monotony.
‘Gesceap’ is a case in point. It is the longest track on the album at almost eight minutes – not exceptionally long by Tortoise standards, but the track drags. And despite a steady build, there is little payoff apart from the addition of more arpeggiated synth lines. Similarly, ‘Hot Coffee’ seems primed for the inclusion of another instrumental with its propulsive and groovy bass line, but instead minimalism prevails making it one of the whitest interpretations of funk on record.
Not every track on ‘The Catastrophist’ is without merit, though. ‘Yonder Blue’ and their cover of ‘Rock On’ are high points on the album and both surprisingly feature vocalists – a first for a Tortoise album. The latter is an ominous, bass heavy interpretation of the David Essex hit, whilst ‘Yonder Blue’ brings in Georgia Hubbley (Yo La Tengo) to contribute her dulcet tones to a woozy and wistful track.
Overall, the album comes across as odd and as mismatched as the features that adorn the face of the man on the album artwork. Although the tracks retain a distinctive Tortoise sound, ‘The Catastrophist’ just isn’t as engaging or as vital as their earlier work. For a band that was once so pioneering, it is frustrating to hear them take so few creative risks.
‘The Catastrophist’ is out now via Thrill Jockey Records.