In the past, Tortoise records could be a bit maddening to listen to. The Chicago-based quintet's meticulously crafted instrumental-rock was singular, provocative and highly intellectual. But it was also emotionally distant -- the musical equivalent of an argument with Star Trek's Mr. Spock.
But "Beacons of Ancestorship," the band's sixth full-length album of original music, manages to get the blood pumping a little. For the first time in almost 20 years as a band, Tortoise displays some vigor.
"Northern Something" finds the group getting funky, working a squelching synthesized bassline over sputtering dancehall rhythms. "Gigantes" may be the first attempt to make serious dance music using a hammer dulcimer, building a wall of dithering percussion over a single repeating note. "Yinxianghechengqi" cranks up the distortion and rocks in earnest with a fuzzy bass guitar pounding away over a shoddy drum kit.
Tortoise's rhythm section is its biggest asset on "Beacons of Ancestorship." The group's sense of melody is so subtle that its hooks, like the buzzing guitar figures on "Minors," often fade instantly into sonic wallpaper. But when the drums are upfront, as they often are on "Beacons," Tortoise sounds exciting, rather than just -- as Mr. Spock might put it -- fascinating.
-- Aaron Leitko, Weekend (July 2009)