the-catastrophist-coverTortoise has never been a group to rest on any laurels. Though certainly its members have recognizable styles of playing — from the varied beats produced by dual drummers John McEntire and John Herndon, not to mention the added percussive activity by Dan Bitney, to the clean, crisp guitar lines of Jeff Parker to the deep, affected bass lines of Doug McCombs — Tortoise has changed from album to album every time. With every release over its 25 years as a group, Tortoise has challenged listeners to dare to listen closely and engage with their instrumental jazz-driven, electronica-inspired progressive instrumental rock (Albums that have stood the test of time: Tortoise – ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die’ [1996]). Their’s was never ambient music, though it has often been pigeon-holed into the genre of post rock.

Seven years after producing one of their more defiant albums to date, the noise-heavy Beacons of Ancestorship, Tortoise was coaxed back into activity by its hometown of Chicago, whose officials tasked them to create a suite of music that paid homage to the city’s musical history. The result is The Catastrophist, a bold return to form that leaves none of the group’s itches to experiment with melodies, effects and reverberating noise unscratched.

The album opens with a bit of a psyche-out via the title track and a squeaky repetitive synth melody that sets a false sense of an electronic heavy record but whooshes out of the way to make way for one of Parker’s luscious, tranquil guitar lines and McCombs’ solid, throbbing base against the high-pitched hum of shimmering organ work and crisp tqP32rqGdrumming. It sounds like classic Tortoise, with breakdowns allowing for some simple organ work augmented by resonant, low-vibe work (it’s mixed low, but it’s there— get on your headphones). With the album’s second track, “Ox Duke,” and its understated swelling of organs, electronics and subtly rumbling percussive work that even enters a loop of bottom heavy bass that recalls the early sonics of Tortoise, you might be forgiven to think that this is a record set on returning to the band’s early nineties roots.

But then comes the group’s rendition of David Essex’s 1973 hit “Rock On.” The bass is so heavily processed in the deep end, you don’t hear it as much as feel it in the vibration of the speakers. Still, it keeps the integrity of the original with Dead Rider’s Todd Rittman taking vocal duties. Rittman could have held back on the vocals a bit, and the added voices accentuating certain words in opposite speakers can be a bit over the top, but the band still plays with a mischievous restraint, adding whizzing effects, rumbling chords and creaks so heavily processed that seem to tear at the insides of your sound system.

This is the real beginning of the new album, and Tortoise remain coy and playful throughout, fully embracing a sort of new-found inspiration. Once again the band members play around with electronics and processed effects that are transporting, most notably on the album’s most tranquilizing track, the patiently developing, ticking and shimmering “The Clearing Fills.” The band released a digital single ahead of the album, “Gesceap,” which featured brilliant layering of shifting organ drones and repetitive guitar work that builds into a multi-melodic wall of sound that recalls the early work of Philip Glass. “Hot Coffee” features a funky, grooving bass line and an urge to break out that speaks to the group’s roots in fusion. There’s also an additional track featuring vocals, “Yonder Blue.” This time Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley contributes. It’s a pretty song that melodically glistens with subtly affected instrumentation fitting snugly with Hubley’s hushed, sleepy voice and even features a warm vibraphone solo during its finale.

The Catastrophist is a welcome return for Tortoise and proves that a band too often categorized as an example of a certain scene and era of alternative music can still prove vital by staying true to its sound, but also pushing at its limitations. Most of all, they sound like they are having fun.

Hans Morgenstern

The Catastrophist will be officially released Friday, Jan. 22. Also being released on that date are reissues of Tortoise’s back catalog on colored vinyl. Visit their artist page for each title. Pitch Perfect PR provided an mp3 version of the album for the purpose of this review. Images of the front and back cover of the album are courtesy of Tortoise. The band is currently on tour. For dates visit their page, here. Nope, no South Florida dates for us. 😦

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

There is something primal about the music of Explosions in the Sky. It comes from a place outside language and does not compromise itself to words. As instrumental music that eschews much of the computers most bands lean on nowadays, it has a certain incomparable purity. It is characteristically instrumental music indeed and does just fine without a singer, thank you. A frontman and lyrics would probably only ruin it. The band knows how to support a melody with triumphant lead guitar work that also knows how to settle into a rhythmic role in order to serve the power of the music best.

Beyond that, the majesty of the Explosions in the Sky’s often lengthy and meandering music comes from somewhere outside the band’s instruments. The musicians who compose the band (guitarists Mark Smith and Munaf Rayani, bassist Michael James and drummer Christopher Hrasky) do not showboat, jacking out self-indulgent solos. The quartet from Austin, Texas do have an obsession with dynamics, however. They earn every bombastic moment with meandering, hushed passages.

Like the best instrumental indie bands that preceded them, such as Mogwai, Tortoise and Godspeed You Black Emperor, Explosions creates music via creative textures and atmospheres that transcend the technology they use. The sounds and instruments are easy to recognize: guitars and drums. But the band use them so creatively, they evoke images of nature: from the slow swell of clouds to the ebb and flow of waves on a shore to the rattle of the wind through tree limbs. Such moments in nature seem represented by the band’s quieter bits, but there are grand moments as well, epic storms of guitars tangling and drums pounding.

I had heard several Explosions albums prior to its latest one: 2011’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care (Support Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). However, I never felt compelled to buy any of them to make a permanent part of my collection. I fell in love with this album on first listen via a stream on-line. I immediately ordered the CD. I thought the LP packaging and the double disc aspect of the vinyl too cumbersome and pricey to enjoy the music, which flows nicely on one side of a CD. But after I heard the music closely on headphones through the mp3s generated from the CD, on my iPod, I knew this was a work dense with character that could be even more thoroughly enjoyed on the vinyl format (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon).

Probably even better than that will be seeing the band perform live. More than a year after the album’s release, I am happy to report the band has scheduled a show in Miami, and there are still tickets available. The cavernous venue should make for an excellent setting for the music of Explosions in the Sky. If you want to try for a chance at winning a pair of free tickets for the Miami show, visit the Beached Miami blog.

Finally, here is an excellent taste of the soft-powerful-soothing dynamics in the new album by Explosions. This is the official music video for “Be Comfortable, Creature”:

The band’s remaining US tour continues with Zammuto supporting through these dates:

06/18: Soul Kitchen, Mobile, AL

06/19: The Ritz Ybor, Tampa, FL

06/20: Grand Central, Miami, FL

06/21: The Georgia Theatre, Athens, GA

06/22: Jefferson Theater, Charlottesville, VA

06/24: Randall’s Island. New York, NY
Governors Ball Music Festival (with Beck, Modest Mouse, Fiona Apple, Devendra Banhart, Cage the Elephant, Built to Spill, Cults, Phantogram, Freelance Whales, Alberta Cross, The Jezabels, Turf War)

06/25: 123 Pleasant Street Morgantown, WV

06/26: The Chicago Theatre Chicago, IL

06/27: Ryman Auditorium Nashville, TN

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)