There was once a time when Chicago’s Tortoise was considered one of the leading characters (if not the progenitors) of the emerging post-rock movement in the 1990’s alongside bands like Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, with 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die and 1998’s TNT still regarded as legendary pieces of the genre.
In their heyday, Tortoise were heavily praised for their production quality, gracefully combining lo-fi krautrock and minimalist music with lush, lethargic soundscapes almost seamlessly in the studio. They were able to combine components of the more avant-garde side of the 70’s and 80’s rock of yore with the hip new indie rock of the present, laying the groundwork for many bands like Don’t Make Say Think to follow in their footsteps.
Twenty years later however The Catastrophist sees Tortoise as a bit of a different act. For one, the band seems less keen on taking the artistic risks they would have on their earlier work, instead aiming more for abstract, pseudo-progressive rock and math rock elements that follow what could be considered to be more conventional musical frameworks. Although Tortoise, as usual, are very keen on throwing ideas at the wall like varied drum tones, processed synthesizers or dreamy electric guitar until they stick, all of it is underscored by very by-the-numbers and palatable melodiousness. As a result the whole album seems a bit underwhelming on delivery due to how safe they play it. However it doesn’t mean that this melodic nature doesn’t result in a few hits like ‘Geasceap’, a slowly building, almost Jaga Jazzist-esque tune on the side two or the lush title track opener. On the other hand tracks like ‘Tesseract’ and ‘Ox Duke’ seem like meandering attempts at imitating Mogwai and are boring beyond belief with how much substance they lack.
Another change Tortoise has made that makes The Catastrophist stand out from prior material is vocals. Something Tortoise’s more prolific albums had as an advantage was that they were entirely instrumental, giving greater leeway for the instrumentation to speak volumes more than vocals ever could. Although not prominent, guest vocalists Todd Rittman (most famously guitarist of noise rock band U.S. Maple) and Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley make a bit of a surprising landmark appearance on Tortoise’s first vocal-lead compositions. Rittman appears on a psychedelic cover of David Essex’s 1973 hit ‘Rock On’, which features the smoky bass of the original with layers of background ambiance and synthetic horns. A bit strange of a choice for a cover but a successful reimagining at least. Hubley on the other hand appears on the lo-fi ‘Yonder Blue’ which she co-wrote as can be seen from the shoegaze elements of lugubrious under-produced instrumentals that sort of bleed together underneath her prominent vocals. Both tracks are pretty standout and likely could have gone much worse considering their drastic change of pace in the band’s style.
In all though, for an album that marks a reappearance of a legendary band for the first time in seven years, The Catastrophist isn’t exactly the most satisfying experience despite it’s clear display of ability. It certainly shows a drop in quality since Beacons of Ancestorship in 2009, which even itself was slightly less impressive then the albums that came before it. So while Tortoise continues to produce fairly creative and well-performed material, this album is certainly a downturn for a band that I know can dazzle effortlessly.