As the band that led the charge during the great post-rock scare of the mid- to late ’90s, Tortoise has had a lot to live up to for quite a while now, regardless of the fact that the members of the band would probably be very happy if they never heard the term “post rock” again in their lives. Tortoise continued to expand and innovate all the way through 2001’s Standards, but even stalwart fans found 2004’s It’s All Around You to be swimming in waters that seemed a bit too tepid. Since then, there’s been a busman’s holiday in the form of a covers album with Will Oldham and an admittedly excellent boxed set of previously unreleased material, so Tortoiseheads have been drumming their fingers in anxious anticipation for some time now, wondering if and when their heroes would pick up the ball they seemed to drop early in the decade. In other words, all eyes and ears were on Beacons of Ancestorship, the first real Tortoise album in five years.
Cagey sonic strategists that they are, the members of Tortoise have neither succeeded nor failed at picking up where Standards left off in the band’s evolutionary progression; they’ve simply thrown their map in the campfire and headed off in an entirely different direction. Well, not entirely. The sounds on Beacons still bear trace elements of the band’s former work, but they’re organized in a drastically different way. The constantly shifting textures, meters, and modes of old have been replaced by more straightforward, simplified structures and a markedly more visceral feel. The kaleidoscopic flurry of tonal colors has been toned down in favor of a focus on relatively hard-edged synth riffs and what one might even dare to call dance beats. If ever there was a Tortoise album to which you could get down and boogie, Beacons is it.
But this new direction doesn’t feel like a 180-degree response to the noodly fusion sounds of It’s All Around You so much as a natural desire to light out for new territory. It’s the same desire that fueled the band’s groundbreaking ’90s albums and is apparently still deep-seated within Tortoise’s collective soul.