Without hearing a single minute of Beacons of Ancestorship, I knew a few things would be true simply by virtue of it being a Tortoise album. The music would consist of inventive indie prog, played virtuosically by a team of musicians boasting, among other things, one of the best rhythm sections in the music underground. Their inner jazzmen would allow the band to couple, as only jazzmen can, all of the thrill of meticulous songcraft with a sense of near-improvisational looseness. So, from a critic’s standard, this would be a no-brainer, right? After all, it was these winning attributes that made the band’s pair of late ‘90s classics, Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT, such sublime accomplishments, what made 2001’s evocative Standards a compelling counterpoint to the melodrama of Tortoise’s post-rock followers. In those days, each Tortoise album was a clever pastiche of leftfield genres, a showcase of indie’s best instrumentalists playing as a unit like no other band could.
Unfortunately, Tortoise’s output since 2001 has included just one proper album, 2004’s water-treading It’s All Around You, and a collaboration with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Despite being as distinctively Tortoise as their ancestors, these efforts were spotty at best. Both the 2004 album and the collaboration saw Tortoise’s once-thrilling compositional style lapse into self-parody. On It’s All Around You, all of the eclectic pieces—the jazzy fills, the dub breaks, the tempo shifts—came in exactly where you’d expect them to. In some ways, the band was shoehorned by its own good taste. In search of a sound that betrayed neither its influences nor the band’s emotions, Tortoise ended up with songs that were also incapable of surprising listeners. Thankfully, Beacons makes it clear that Chicago’s avant-vets still have some spark left. Nearly all of the tracks shake up the band’s formula, and that special feeling that comes from hearing a team of talented players fuse their restless visions permeates the record.
Ultimately, Beacons is a funkier, more playful take on the band’s familiar sonic motifs, balancing out the familiar musical explorations with groove-oriented tracks that actually groove, and rock-oriented tracks that actually rock. The songs come easy to digest too: Only two tracks run over the six minutes, and more than half wrap up before the four-minute mark. The minimalist side of Tortoise shows up in intervals, but the time between is full of vibraphone and synths that go beyond adding texture to provide a real rhythm. On the guitar front, Beacons features some of the best riffs and solos of the band’s career, even if they surface briefly. Mostly, Beacons is manic: shifting textures, tempos, and moods in a constant flux of aw-shucks-lets-try-that-too energy.
One mid-album highlight, the inscrutably titled “Yingxianghechengqi,” makes the best argument for Tortoise’s eclectic approach: It’s a tightly wound knot of furious riffing, with snarling low-end synth and bass contributing additional chaos. At the same time, drummer John McEntire pulverizes his kit in a jazz-metal barrage that would make Mastodon’s Bran Dailoir jealous. The whole thing implodes after three minutes, and the track ends amid rumbling ambiance. If that cut might fit, albeit imperfectly, on a Lightning Bolt album, then follower, “The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One,” could be Tortoise’s contribution to an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. The darkly textured piece sets up a backdrop of acoustic picking and a shuffling drumbeat, foregrounding metallic clanks and stomps, complete with “Huh!” sound effects. “Northern Something” is another standout, sounding like Battles doing dancehall, its mathy percussion alternately matching then riffing off of a chugging dub beat. Only one track sounds like a TNT throwback: the unwieldy “Gigantes,” which should have been half its length. Elsewhere, another long cut, “Minors,” gets lost in its own spacey void. These missteps, however, go down easier thanks to their accompanying material being so strong. And the brief interludes—“Penumbra” (a chirpy, major-key synth swooner) and “de Chelley” (a trembling instrumental ballad), each under two minutes—lend a lively pace to the album in spite of its occasional obtuseness.
Beacons demonstrates that Tortoise is still more than capable of releasing an exciting album. A few tracks still find the band veering off into aimlessness, and the album, return-to-form that it is, still pales next to the band’s best work. To be sure, Tortoise has written masterpieces before, and this is not one of them, but as a consistently engaging and vital record in its own right, it suggests that the band might have another one in them.