Tortoise: Synergy Amid Writer’s Block

With a heavier dose of buzzing, oscillating, digital instrumentation, particularly on the album’s first three tracks, the most recognizable difference with Beacons of Ancestorship is its emphasis on synthesizers. Plenty of new Tortoise sounds also are heard, as metamorphosing grooves lead to moments of fuzz bass, noodling guitar hammer-ons, and snare-heavy cadences.

“Gigantes” operates like a samba, split between two drum kits, and “Yinxianghechengqi” is a twisted yet straightforward rock jam, the band’s heaviest song to date.

“Northern Something” finds inspiration from batucada — an Afro-Brazilian style that stems from samba — and an old industrial tune, as alien sounds abound and a detuned 808 kick drum turns into a modulated bass line. Even a touch of Italian western directs “The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One,” which melds one of McCombs’ beautiful melodies with weighty thuds and the backing cracks of chains and snares.

And yet, for as removed from the traditional Tortoise writing process as Beacons of Ancestorship may be, parts of the album couldn’t escape the group’s studio-fiddling dynamic.

“Some of these shorter tunes — there’s one called ‘Penumbra’ and there’s one called ‘Monument Six One Thousand’ — we sort of put together in the studio out of demos that members of the band had brought in,” McCombs says. “We embellished those ideas, changed the arrangements, and turned them into Tortoise songs. Those are the kinds of songs that might have ended up as something completely different if we had spent time in the practice space working on them or figuring out a way to play them live.”

The album’s greatest example of post-production magic, however, may be “Gigantes.”

“‘Gigantes’ was kind of sitting there, flat,” Bitney says. “I remember McEntire turning to me, being like, ‘What do we do?’ And I was like, ‘Well, cut out the four minutes in the middle.’ And I remember him saying, ‘I have this idea, but I don’t know whether it will work’—[and it involved] a dulcimer.

“Then when I got it E-mailed to me, I was like, ‘Oh, my god, you fuckin’ saved that jam.’ Then we added that and a weird African guitar solo; those were put on after the song was mixed. In my eyes, it totally saved that composition.”

In all, Beacons of Ancestorship is both a step back — from the denser material and style of the two preceding albums — and a step forward, continuing Tortoise’s legacy of originality and greatness. It’s an album that fans will find strange, familiar, and endearing.

“I think that it’s fucking burning — the whole thing,” Herndon reflects. “I think that it’s the best thing that we’ve done. I just love everything about it.”

“I feel like we’re getting closer and closer to a really great group dynamic where everything fits in the right place,” McCombs says. “All five personalities blend together to make an interesting thing. There’s some kind of harmony that exists there that is beyond just writing a good song. As the years go by, we get more and more in tune with each other. Across the course of all of our albums, there are different touchstones and different things that I never would have thought possible 15 years ago.”

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