Tortoise — The Catastrophist

With the passing of seven years since 2009’s Beacons of Ancestorship, post-rock pioneers Tortoise have returned with a satisfying collection of songs that put the playful back into play. Post-rock’s most abstract band had already absorbed much of the 90s underground sights and smells, combining into a heady amalgam that’s more post-post-rock than it is post-rock; they continue to explore a sound awash with new-agey synths.

While any newcomer to the band might find The Catastrophist’s cruisy tempos somewhat conservative, any initiate into Tortoise’s soundscape knows that — as with all their albums, replete with their signature minimalist grooves — understatement is sovereign. In the majority, song lengths keep to under or around a respectable four minutes, rendering the band’s sonic excursions more ambient tasters rather than immersive transfigurations.

The album’s opener, and title track, represents the most structured and straightforward piece on the album, while following track, ‘Ox Duke’, serves as a more appropriate introduction to one of the album’s primary themes of exploration: timbral layers and textures. Rather than backgrounding or foregrounding particular sounds to elicit textures, Tortoise has the various sounds in ‘Ox Duke’ play off each other by pulling a timbre from one instrument before discarding the original sound and moving in with another. For example, the high register of the cymbal crash at about a minute into the piece introduces the next stage of the layered build into icy string synths, texturally contrasting against earthy guitar chords while rhythmically complementing them. All these elements collaborate to produce a wide palette of interconnected sounds while generating fluid, ambient textures.

Followed by a very Pink Floydian cover of David Essex’s 1973 single ‘Rock On’, the band continues with their timbral explorations on the ominous ‘Shake Hands with Danger’, featuring sharp guitar tones underlaid by their characteristic oblong bass groove and prominent percussive exotica. ‘The Clearing Fills’ depicts a serene soundscape that gradually dissolves into ambience.

As the album’s single and longest song, ‘Gesceap’ forms the centrepiece forThe Catastrophist, hearkening to Philip Glass’ late 70s-early 80s output with it’s hypnotic spiderweb of patiently layered polyrhythms.

‘Yonder Blue’, another album highlight, features Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Huble’s languorously — and gorgeously — deadpan vocals over hazy atmospherics and twangy strumming.

Between the upbeat electronics of ‘Gopher Island’ and the sophisticated funk of ‘Hot Coffee’, The Catastrophist finds Tortoise making a warm, expressive, and consistently interesting addition to their discography.

The Catastrophist is out this Friday through Thrill Jockey/Rocket.