Tortoise - The Catastrophist
Tortoise, the Chicago-based instrumental post-rock quintet, have spent the past 25 years and seven albums fusing dub, jazz, prog, and indie into an instantly recognizable and much-loved trademark sound. The Catastrophist is their first studio album in nearly seven years, and in their time away, Tortoise were commissioned by their hometown to create several suites of music inspired by its storied jazz and improvisational music scenes. Based on this new record, the experience must have been a pivotal one, as The Catastrophist bears a subtle yet marked style change for the band—from sprawling and loose to something more cohesive, but nonetheless experimental enough so as to not alienate their core fans. The enjoyability of The Catastrophist is in this leap of faith, the idea that no mold is beautiful enough to remain unbroken, even if its new shape may be foreign and strange.
You cannot listen to this record as someone who is familiar with Tortoise's output and not be somewhat taken aback by at least one facet: vocals. The Catastrophist is Tortoise's first album ever to prominently feature guest vocalists, and they chose wisely. Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo provides vocals to the distorted, laid-back soul ballad "Yonder Blue" which makes exquisite use of her soft, choirboy voice. A cover of British singer-songwriter David Essex's 1973 hit single "Rock On," which is a fairly weird classic rock oddity to begin with, enlists Todd Rittman, guitarist for fellow Chicagoans U.S. Maple, and his distorted, echo-y vocals make Tortoise's version sound even more languid and surreal than the original, like a Satanic call for teenagers to experience the forbidden pleasures of rock 'n' roll. When Rittman curls his tongue around "Still looking for that blue jean, baby queen/ Prettiest girl I ever seen," it definitely sounds more like a concrete threat than the plea of a disenchanted lover. The original song's staccato strings are replaced here by heavy synthesizers, and the result is a track that sounds both new and steeped in '70s and '80s gearhead synth-rock. It's clever and arresting, and illustrates perfectly what could be a very new direction in Tortoise's cannon.
Some of their more conventional tracks may pale a little in comparison to their newer aesthetics, if only because their evolution has been so slow and protracted. The album's first single, "Gesceap," beings with dueling synthesizers that are then joined by the vast array of Tortoise's instrumental arsenal, until all that's left is a tornado of texture and sound. There's a lack of the slightly more rock-oriented, guitar-driven pieces the band became popular for (the urgency of their 1998 record TNT, for example, is absent), but it has been replaced by almost tongue-in-cheek flourishes in some places: "Gopher Island" clocks in at just over a minute and might seem like mid-album fodder, but multiple listens reveals it to be a weirdo bubble of retro experimental electronica, the sort of thing Throbbing Gristle or Fad Gadget would have knocked around the studio while feeding each other magic mushrooms.