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Album Review: The Catastrophist – Tortoise

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Musical progress is a bus usually driven by the young. Generally speaking, young people are more accepting of progressive artistic directions and their familiarity with technology allows them to make greater strides in musical creation. There is something to be said about an aging veteran playing a heartfelt show for an older audience; however, there is also a very clear difference between nostalgic haze and musical advancement. These differences are made compatible by Tortoise on its new album The Catastrophist. A seasoned group of talented electronic musicians, Tortoise has managed to maintain a contemporary approach to sound throughout their 20-year-long career, and although this album may not be remembered as their most important work, their desire for progress remains prominent.

According to the liner notes of the album, the inspiration behind The Catastrophist came “when the group was commissioned by the City of Chicago to compose a suite of music rooted in its ties to the area’s noted jazz” community. Those unfamiliar with the modern jazz idiom might be thrown off by the lack of horns and swing rhythm, but the jazz inspiration comes through much clearer in the way the music is structured. Rather than using the elements of post-rock characteristic of Tortoise’s roots, the band now establishes grooves within each song and brings them to new heights through improvisation. The fully composed musical themes, strange bass-guitar centerpiece, and quirky guitar production have been swapped out for synthesizers and keyboards that model the phrasing of a large jazz ensemble.

The song “Gesceap” is particularly indicative of the band’s jazz conception. Building from a simple melodic counterpoint with a spacey guitar part over the top of a simple keyboard arpeggio, “Gesceap” slowly approaches its climax with the addition of percussion and melodic variations. As more instruments are added to the sound, the volume and intensity evolves into an improvisational texture with melodies weaving in and out of each other from every corner of the ensemble. The drummer provides rhythmic tension on the snare drum as the synthesizer sequencing speeds up and the bass rhythm speeds up and crackles with distortion culminating in a heavy climactic moment all the while maintaining the original melody underneath the growing wall of sound.

The jazz inspiration of The Catastrophist somewhat helps Tortoise dismiss the avenues they have previously explored, but there are certain qualities of this album that differentiate Tortoise from the top fusion bands in the world right now. The most significant being the shock factor. Although the band hits a bit harder with heavy electronic guitar playing on songs like “Hot Coffee” and “Shake Hands With Danger”, there is a clear difference between their intensity and the intensity brought forth on the electronic experimentations of Los Angeles-based producer Flying Lotus. Similar to Tortoise, Flying Lotus takes the jazz conception to new heights with modern production, but his music is clearly more progressive. Lotus brings brighter synthesizer sounds, erratic beats, and faster sound evolution into his work, which makes the sequencing synthesizers, bass distortion, and instrumental electronic approach of The Catastrophist seem more predictable and less rule-breaking. If Tortoise had been willing to use riskier synthesizer sounds and more drastic dynamic contrast they may have pulled off a more exciting example of fusion.

The Catastrophist is a good album from a fantastic band. With its history left aside, the listener is left with a relatively interesting contemporary release with a cool jazz-rooted compositional style. The album falls short of greatness due to the band’s disappearing claim to rebellious greatness and lack of shocking risk taking.

Sounds like:

Jaga Jazzist, Kneebody, a minimalist version of Flying Lotus

Standout tracks:

“Shake Hands With Danger” and “Gesceap”

Tortoise will be performing at the Fairmount Theatre on March 13. The show is 18+. Tickets are $22 and can be purchased online http://theatrefairmount.tunestub.com/event.cfm?cart&id=223496./

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