July 3, 2009

Tortoise: Beacons of Anscestorship

Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey LP/CD)

The style of music termed “fusion” has become much maligned over the decades, and perhaps deservedly so. Originally coined to describe the “jazz-rock fusion” of Miles Davis and his progeny in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies, the term eventually came to embody a cynical industry churning out insipid, commercial dreck, for which the genre of “fusion” justly deserves its now widespread disapprobation. Yet, what other word can one use to accurately describe the kind of music that Tortoise is pursuing? “Post-rock” is thrown around when folks write about Tortoise, and while it is a clever turn of phrase that effectively obscures the shame of “fusion,” it is also too vague and ill-defined to be really useful. Let’s face it: like the classic fusion of yore, Tortoise utilizes cutting edge technology and sophisticated musicianship to create instrumental soundscapes with quasi-danceable rhythms. And there is nothing wrong with that! But what is refreshingly absent in their music is the kind of histrionic displays of empty-headed virtuosity that came to define the fusion era. Instead, Tortoise fulfills the integrative promise of fusion in part by never devolving into ego-fueled exhibitionism. Further, Tortoise “fuses” the plethora of pop subgenres that arose since fusion’s heyday in the nineteen-seventies: punk rock, prog-metal, noise, hip-hop, dub, glitchy electronica, etc., thereby bringing fusion up to date. So, fusion it is, like it or not.

And I like it. And I like those classic fusion albums of the nineteen-seventies, too. So, how cool is it that a band like Tortoise can virtually single-handedly resurrect a disrespected genre and make it hip once again? I guess by folks calling it “post-rock.” Fine, whatever you want to call it, it is simply good music. Tortoise, based in Chicago, has been purveying their brand of fusion since the mid nineteen-nineties, releasing an extraordinary sequence of albums on the Thrill Jockey label which document a progression from the bass-heavy, dub-wise minimalism of their eponymous record (1994), to the expansive dreamscapes of Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996), the richly Reich-ian interlocking polyrhythms of TNT (1998), and finally into the exuberantly elaborate electronic constructions of Standards (2001) and It’s All Around You (2004). Beacons of Anscestorship continues this progression and is perhaps their fusion-iest record to date: fat, analog-sounding synthesizers burble and whine, electric guitars are distorted, wrangled, and processed, lurching funk beats are constructed and deconstructed or evolve into ecstatically hard-driving rhythms. It’s fusion, I tell you.

Despite the increasing complexity, Tortoise still retains a collagist approach to group composition. There may not seem to be a whole lot going on at any one time, but as the music unfolds, a journey is taken that often winds up far removed from where you began. Melodies are stretched out and subtly submerged in texture, passed from instrument to instrument and “solos” only exist in the context of ever evolving ensembles. For example, “Gigantes” opens with exotic-sounding guitar/dulcimer over an insistent eight-note feel. Meanwhile, percolating sythesizers gradually overlay a herky-jerky disco feel while heavily processed electric guitar and swooning keyboards build up a long, richly-voiced orchestral climax. “Yinxianghechengqi” starts out like a punky rave up, with huge, nasty, distorto-guitar riffs. Then the tempo quickens and a modal chord sequence sets up some truly Mahavishnu-style electric guitar wailing -- but suddenly everything stops and keyboards and heavily processed guitar space out for a bit to end. The abrupt change of scenery is jarring yet evocatively cinematic. “The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One” sustains a dreamy, spaghetti-western mood with giant-toned guitar, smoky organ chords, clip-clopping percussion, and cavernous reverb. The album ends with a kind of three-part suite built around repeated guitar appregios and long-breathed synthesizer melodies that eventually erupts into a cool, prog-y groove propelling yet more radically processed electric guitar soloing and declamatory keyboards. Sounds like fusion, right?

If that sounds like your cup of tea, by all means, help yourself. All of their albums are excellent and each has a flavor all its own. The moderately priced box set, A Lazarus Taxon (2006), consisting of three CDs of outtakes, B-sides, remixes, and other rare tracks along with a live DVD compilation, conveniently plugs all the holes and is a must for the fan. Even so, TNT remains my Tortoise album (and one of my favorite albums of all time) so I would suggest the merely curious to start there. Then again, Beacons of Ancestorship is a seriously fun blast of full-blown fusion music for the Twenty-first Century and is highly recommended to those who think that is a long-overdue and welcome development. The beautifully pressed LP sounds fantastic (and comes with a download coupon for digital portability – nice!), but is limited to a thousand copies so vinyl aficionados need to act quickly. CD is OK too, modestly reproducing the luxurious, gatefold packaging of the LP. Hooray for fusion!

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