When Tortoise’s It’s All Around You arrived in 2004, some critics suggested that the band was at a creative impasse: John McEntire and his virtuosic post-rock warrior brethren had honed their songs to the point of becoming background music, that great graveyard of well-intentioned instrumentals. Around was clean and tight, whereas young bucks like Battles were starting to experiment with a mathier, full-tilt version of the Tortoise sound. Well, if Beacons Of Ancestorship isn’t counterfire, then nothing is. The album can be roughly split down the middle, with an emphasis on rhythm up front. The opener, “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In,” is distinguished by its blurting funk synth and low-lying Madlibbian groove, while “Northern Something” verges on dubstep with its metallic percussive bits and bizarre bass sounds flitting atop a carnaval two-step. “Gigantes” is a minimal, micro-chopped polyrhythmic feast; “Penumbra” jerks forth on a sampler beat; and the monstrous “Yinxianghechengqi” features punk drumming, sharp jags of guitar distortion, and blown-out bass.
Melody takes precedent on Beacons’ second side, but even so, the tracks are roughed up; if the first half was hit by a jackhammer, these songs were jabbed at random with a belt sander. “The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One” is a gnarled piece of noir-laced exotica whose impeccably clean guitar tone is marred by the sound of dragging chains. The easy-yet-gritty lilt of “Minors” bleeds into “Monument Six One Thousand,” which pits shimmering melody against an elastic loop, and the tense, organ-sporting “de Chelly” goes entirely drumless. The album-closing “Charteroak Foundation” is a mobile epic on par with the single, “Prepare Your Coffin,” and each of those ends just shy of its natural peak.
It follows that if the fellas in Tortoise know what makes their sound perfect, they also know how to avoid hitting that mark. Beacons’ biggest weakness is that it lacks the fluidity of a classic like Standards. Fortunately, that’s exactly the weakness currently required from post-rock’s still-relevant forefathers.