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Simply put, Tortoise has spent nearly 25 years making music that defies description. While the Chicago-based instrumental quintet has nodded to dub, rock, jazz, electronica and minimalism throughout its revered and influential six-album discography, the resulting sounds have always been distinctly, even stubbornly, their own.
It’s a fact that remains true on “The Catastrophist,” Tortoise’s first studio album in nearly seven years. And it’s an album where moody, synth-swept jams like the opening title track cozy up next to hypnotic, bass-and-beat missives like “Shake Hands With Danger” and a downright strange cover of David Essex’s 1973 radio smash sung by U.S. Maple’s Todd Rittman. Throughout, the songs transcend expectations as often as they delight the eardrums.
Tortoise, comprised of multi-instrumentalists Dan Bitney, John Herndon, Doug McCombs, John McEntire and Jeff Parker, has always thrived on sudden bursts of inspiration. And for “The Catastrophist,” the spark came in 2010 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 and improvised music communities.
Tortoise then performed those five loose themes at a handful of concerts, and “when we finally got around to talking about a new record, the obvious solution to begin with was to take those pieces and see what else we could do with them,” says McEntire, at whose Soma Studios the band recorded the new album. “It turned out that for them to work for Tortoise, they needed a bit more of a rethink in terms of structure. They’re all pretty different in the sense that at first they were just heads and solos. Now, they’re orchestrated and complex.”
As ever, Tortoise has conjured sounds on “The Catastrophist” that aren’t being purveyed anywhere else in music today. There’s a deeply intuitive interplay between the group members that comes only from two decades of experimentation, revision and improvisation. And at a time when our brains are constantly bombarded by myriad distractions, “The Catastrophist” reminds us that there’s something much greater out there. All we have to do is listen.
Tortoise’s reissue of their classic, long out-of-print remixes album Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters is out April 22nd on Thrill Jockey.
BRETT W. NAUCKE
Brett W. Naucke is an American experimental composer and visual artist from Chicago, IL currently based in Asheville, NC. With a sonic output primarily focused on marrying an ever-evolving practice of audio-synthesis with conceptual narratives, his recordings have been released by a wide variety of acclaimed labels in addition to providing original scores for several films and presented many works for multi-channel audio and video installations.
Recorded under a loft bed in the guest bedroom of his Nashville home, Michael Ruth aka Rich Ruth’s I Survived, It’s Over starts in a humble space. And while many contemporary music projects are produced in such an environment, I Survived, It’s Over sets itself apart in its transformative properties as well as its transparency.