Beacons of Ancestorship
2.5 of 5 stars
Tortoise has never been an easy band to pigeonhole. Sure, they’ve been tagged with the inevitable “post-rock” label by a music industry obsessed with generic classification. But the band, with an iconoclastic sound that culls from all over the sonic map, and a discography marked by ambitious evolutionary leaps (excluding 2004’s relatively unsurprising It’s All Around You), has built its reputation on unclassifiable, shapeshifting innovation.
Beacons of Ancestorship continues this trend of unpredictability, but something about it feels disappointingly half-baked, especially for a band so keen on producing razor-sharp albums. Tortoise has always used elaborate post-production as a tool rather than a crutch, digitally tweaking airtight songs to add texture and atmosphere. On Beacons, the post-production often serves as a substitute for dynamic songwriting, coming off as synthetically schlocky instead of adding subtle mystique.
On “Northern Something,” an obnoxiously dumpy bassline loops over and over again with little variation, accompanied by studio fuzz that seems to have been slopped on to fill the emptiness. The track, clocking in at just over two minutes, feels more like an experiment in “trippy” post-production than a legitimate song.
Other one-trick quickies, like “Penumbra” and “de Chelly,” carry a bit more momentum as individual tracks. But for a band that’s at its best when it’s given room to explore and expand, they feel truncated and expendable, lending to the album’s clunky pacing.
But perhaps the biggest momentum-killer on the album is “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In,” an eight-minute opener as cumbersome as its title. It starts off promisingly enough, with syncopated snare hits and a moody, elastic bassline, soon accompanied by a surging triple-synth harmony. But two minutes in, it takes a clumsy detour, abruptly shedding its head-bobbing thrust for a monotonous bass-synth loop suspended in amorphous studio drones. Then it briefly returns to the intro before segueing into a tediously monomaniacal drum-and-bass loop doodled over with unproductive post-production squiggles, dragging on for another three minutes.
The song, in addition to being a criminally ineffective album opener, represents everything that feels off about Beacons. Compared to Tortoise’s signature hyper-lush soundscapes, much of the album sounds hollow and tinny. Between the high tones of its synths and the low tones of its rhythm section, the band has always wedged in a mélange of eclectic mid-range instruments, from jazzy guitars to marimbas. On Beacons, the band cuts down heavily on organic instrumentation, giving a good handful of the tracks a drab, half-finished quality.
And the chunky three-part structure of “High Class Slim,” built on jarring shifts between stagnant sections, seems obvious and formulaic for a band that usually excels at seamless sonic dynamism, flowing with controlled chaos from point A to point B. Many tracks on are either disjointed or inert. Even high-octane standout “Prepare Your Coffin” is a bit pedestrian in structure, rocking hard without ever really traveling.
Still, the album sports a unique, exotic sound and, while it may not be all that refined, it makes for an interesting listen. And the record isn’t without its smattering of memorable tracks.
“Gigantes” embraces Tortoise’s characteristically free-flowing approach to songwriting, sweeping along hypnotically with shuffling drums and Egyptian-tinged guitars.
The unsettling “Monument Six One Thousand” nails an uncanny balance between a skittery drum machine and clean-picked guitars, exploiting the album’s synthetic feel.
And “Charteroak Foundation” closes the record on a welcome note of nostalgia, ditching Beacons’s abrasive aesthetic for a lilting dose of more “classic” Tortoise.
Beacons of Ancestorship, while not exactly a flop, is an esoteric and sloppy addition to the Tortoise catalogue, scrapping many of the band’s fortes in favor of arcane experimentation.