Tortoise picks up the pace with sixth album 

Cerebral indie rockers return with aggressive record

Tortoise's sixth album, Beacons of Ancestorship, arrived like a thief in the night, five years after the lukewarm reception of 2004's It's All Around You. The heady complexities that defined the group's strongest albums, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, TNT and Standards, had lost steam toward the end of the Clinton years, and another Tortoise album wasn't high on anyone's wish list. But the downtime was good for the Chicago five-piece. Beacons of Ancestorship is an aggressive record. "I remember when TNT came out and people would say, 'The pressure is on now!' I had no idea what they were talking about," recalls percussionist Dan Bitney. "Now I can say, yes it is. We knew that we needed to take a bigger leap with this record."

Tortoise ruled a cerebral corner of indie rock during the '90s. Bitney, drummer/producer John McEntire, bassist Doug McCombs, drums, vibes and keyboard player John Herndon, and guitarist Jeff Parker looked to the spacious intricacies of jazz to guide their brand of so-called post-rock. In a decade punctuated by such musical trends as grunge, indie rock and drum-n-bass, Tortoise took the experimental high road, composing serene and funky instrumentals that bridged jazz, kraut rock, hip-hop and dub.

Tortoise didn't exactly go on hiatus, but the group shifted gears to work on a collaboration with Dada country icon Will Oldham for an album called The Brave and the Bold. It was a musical change of scenery that refreshed the group on the eve of its twentieth anniversary. "Every time we go into the studio we have to learn to write together again," Bitney adds. "I always say, 'Ah! I never remember it being this challenging just to write tunes ... .' But in that sense, this is a great year for us."

From the air-raid whine and tornadic drums that jump start Beacons on "High Class Slim Came Floatin' In," the renewed energy is abundant. "Gigantes" is tangled in wiry tension and abstract beats while "Yinxianghechengqi" and "Monument Six One Thousand" lumber with blown-speaker textures. It's a powerful album steeped in brash textures and the fortitude of Tortoise firing on all cylinders.


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