Tortoise The Catastophist

[Thrill Jockey; 2016]

Styles: free pazz, unfree jop, the inorganic aging of pazz-jop fusion
Others: Tortoise

Tortoise’s sophomore album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, may have introduced the world to “post-rock” and its attending discourses. As if we ever needed to be reminded, forms of art and mass culture have life-spans. They are born, they live, they pay taxes, they grow old, and they die. It isn’t necessary here to give yet another rendition of what this means. Rather, it’s the place to take note of the fact that Millions is now two decades old, and The Catastrophist is doomed to labor in its shadow.

Knowing this allows us to relocate the sort of questions “post-rock” raised in the first place. We can now recognize it as a limited radicalization of the meaning of rock and/or roll music. The “post” bit doesn’t necessarily have a temporal dimension, so it doesn’t commit to the total upheaval of the “rock” bit, but it has a particular set of aesthetic ambitions that appear to transcend it. Perhaps “post-rock” refers to an attempt to emphasize the seriousness of rock and/or roll by pushing at the limits of artistic expression within the restricted field of mass culture. It allows the conventions of “rock” instrumentation to enter into conflict with themselves, but it’s still produced and consumed as a commodity. This leaves us with yet another version of the relentless self-inquiry of modernism being tied to the avant-garde drive to collapse the distinctions between “high” and “low” culture; it recognizes itself as alienated, but can’t avoid having that become part of the product itself.

The Catastrophist avoids these problems by not being as ambitious as the band’s earlier work. It doesn’t raise any of these questions, but it does have new ones. Does it mark a point at which the aesthetic resources of “post-rock” reach a certain stage of exhaustion? It certainly avoids the epic-lite quality we usually associate with bands in the post-rock mold. There’s no soundtrack material here: nothing to be exploited for the purposes of perfume advertisement erotica or inspiring nature documentaries. This is a life-affirming-visuals-free zone. Is the problem that they fail to live up to the impossible-to-repeat standards of their early career? Are these questions about the stagnation of the band or the questions themselves?

This binds The Catastrophist to two intersecting problems. Firstly, the formal properties of the tracks themselves are more deeply tethered to all those rock and/or roll conventions that they spent their early career challenging. It’s full of precisely the sort of “rock” moments that are supposed to be “post.” There are no more marathon multi-part suites like “Djed,” which opened Millions. In its place, sinewy synth noodler and early single “Gesceap” is the longest thing on here. Placing such value on length and complexity would commit the sin of listening to post-rock with prog-rock ears, but it’s an example of how they sound much more restricted than they did before. Even when these cuts try to be gnarly, they sound too careful, too precise. This goes for individual performances and production alike. At two points (“Rock On” and “Yonder Blue,” which features Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley), they even use — shock horror — vocals.

Secondly, at times, they try to ironize their way out of the exhaustion of the musical imagination. It’s as if they’re encouraging us to take a reflexive stance to their own reflexivity, but without opening up anything at the other end, filtering naff stylistic motifs through “aesthetic” ambitions instrumentalized for maximum intellectual satisfaction. We already know that this cynically inverts the conventions of rock music’s mass cultural packaging, so it’s difficult to be impressed by how the mournful guitar twinkling on the title track recalls all manner of forgotten post-hardcore bands from the early 2000s, or how the synthy string pads on “Ox Duke” are straight outta trip-hop.

The most obvious example of both problems is their attempt to submit the banality of David Essex’s “Rock On” to self-critique. It pushes the pervasive irony into overdrive by picking something that was already (probably) quite crass in 1973. By smothering it in studio juice, they never quite show it up for what it is. If listeners born after, say, the 1980s don’t read about it, they’ll never know.

It’s a desperate attempt to smother rock and/or roll clichés — “Hey kid, rock and roll/ Rock on, ooh my soul” and “Hey shout, summertime blues/ Jump up and down in my blue suede shoes” — in art rock smarts. The drums sometimes stomp organically and crunch electronically. The subterranean bass sometimes grooves organically and squelches electronically. The big brass hooks honk organically, while a gnarly guitar solo sears electronically. The bluesy vocals are organic, because they’re sung by a real human being, but they shimmer dubbily, electronically. Tortoise are so self-conscious about both the material and their own methods that they can’t help but sound self-unconscious on The Catastophist.

Links: Thrill Jockey

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