The Catastrophist (Thrill Jockey)


Standard-bearers of the nebulous post-rock movement, Tortoise have had an unpredictable 25-year career trajectory, with standouts like Tortoise, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, and Beacons of Ancestorship thankfully outweighing mediocre efforts such as TNT and It's All Around You. (It should be noted that even at their blandest, Tortoise still sound fascinatingly innocuous.) The Catastrophist, while not on the level of the self-titled debut or Beacons, adds another positive chapter to Tortoise's gnomic saga of cerebral genre fusions.

What sets the new album apart from its predecessors is the presence of vocals and a very unlikely cover... of David Essex's 1973 glam-dub radio staple "Rock On." Tortoise lured U.S. Maple's Todd Rittmann to croon the one-hit wonder's meta lyrics about rock and film iconography while they smudge the original's spare, exquisitely tense poise. Tortoise almost replicate Essex session man Herbie Flowers's ocean's-bottom bass pressure, while Rittmann invests the sparse lyrics with a half-jocular dramatic intonation. Don't worry—Tortoise drop in the requisite dubwise whooshes, cymbal crashes, and disorienting backing vocals. The other voice-centric track, "Yonder Blue," features Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley singing a sentimental ballad that shimmers and shrugs like something by her own band in pensive mode. It's a nice deviation from Tortoise's prevalent professorial gravitas.

Much of The Catastrophist stems from a 2010 commission by the City of Chicago to create music based in its associations with the region's renowned jazz and improv scenes. Which means that most of it sounds like serious music made for other serious musicians. It takes three or four listens before the chiseled, oblong contours of these compositions, with their restrained climaxes and poker-faced diminuendos, come into focus. You're left wondering how—and sometimes why—Tortoise conceived these structures, but you're almost always impressed by their complexity and solemn beauty. However, "Shake Hands with Danger," a menacing Bronto stomp underpinned by stirring metallic percussion and triumphant guitar and keyboard motifs, is Tortoise's "Kashmir"; instant gratification, at last! recommended