It’s entirely apt that Tortoise would release its first album in seven years after two straight weeks when the music world has been thinking and talking about the late David Bowie. It’s not that The Catastrophist is blatantly Bowie-esque, exactly. But there are times—like on the heavy, ominous “Shake Hands With Danger”—where the band’s noisy guitar drone buzzes over pounding drums and jingling xylophones, producing sounds that wouldn’t be out of place on Low or Heroes. And the album’s two tracks with vocals (a cover of David Essex’s glam favorite “Rock On,” featuring the voice of U.S. Maple’s Todd Rittmann, and the dreamy original ballad “Yonder Blue,” sung by Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley) are informed by the world of glitter rock and Velvet Underground minimalism where Bowie once dwelled.
The point isn’t that Tortoise is copying another artist. If anything, 21 years into its career, the Chicago band has developed a style distinct enough that songs like The Catastrophist’s title track and “Ox Duke” are recognizably Tortoise. The bottom-heavy percussion, the pretty electronic washes, the resonant guitar textures: They all trace back to the classic 1990s albums Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT. But the question that any new Tortoise album raises—particularly at a time when the “post-rock” genre isn’t as vital as it was two decades ago—is where this group belongs, both in the history of popular music and in 2016. And that’s when it helps to think about The Catastrophist’s connection to other approaches that have endured: from the jazz-rock fusion experiments of the 1970s to Bowie and Brian Eno’s explorations into ambience and soundscapes.
As it happens, the new LP was partly inspired by a commission to compose a suite rooted in Chicago’s musical past. That may be why it sounds more focused than anything the band’s done since 2001’s Standards, because the members were actively thinking about how they fit into a larger tradition. One of Tortoise’s biggest ongoing issues has been that its songs sound less special in bulk, when a lot of them are played in succession. The music resolves into either “pleasant” or “challenging,” rather than “essential.” That’s not entirely untrue of The Catastrophist, either. About a quarter of the record is fairly neglible. But the rest shows an energy and purpose that’s refreshing to hear, especially for anyone who’s been following Tortoise from the start. When the quintet comes up with something as arresting as “Gesceap”—which generates seven minutes of mesmerizing synthesizer and tick-tock rhythms, growing from simplicity into grandeur—it’s reassuring to know that Tortoise still exists.