Barring a generally excellent boxset and a not terrible/not great covers album with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, it's been half a decade since we heard anything new from Tortoise. I can't say I was anticipating Beacons Of Ancestorship because their last one, It's All Around You, left me so disappointed. In my review of that album I said the following: "There's no sense of danger, experimentation, or chance anywhere on this album. Too often it clings to elements of the past, mirrored in personality-less ways." Well, take all of those points, reverse them, and you've got their new album, a shockingly good re-invigoration for a band who seemed to have nowhere to go but in circles.
The first thing that struck me about this album is that it doesn't sound like Tortoise. Gone are the distinctive marimbas/vibraphones and the patented Tortoise-y guitar sound. In its place are the electronic and experimental elements that made 1999's Standards my favorite Tortoise album. With a couple listens Beacons Of Ancestorship will seem more familiar and obviously a product of Tortoise, but there's a sense of fun and discovery all over the album, an energy and feel all of its own even when it hints back to other Tortoise albums. 'Gigantes' could fit on TNT with its acoustic guitar loops, tribal-esque percussion, and sense of patient floating. 'The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One' is destined to play over the end credits of a film set in the West just as Millions Now Living Will Never Die's 'Along The Banks Of Rivers' had a similar filmic aesthetic. And the mysterious 'Monument Six One Thousand' could be a Standards outtake, a dirty electro drum beat bumping against a brilliantly atonal, repetitive guitar chord.
But even though Beacons Of Ancestorship may remind you of past Tortoise gems, it's never in the boring, recycled sounding manner that It's All Around You suffered under. In fact, I would say that this is one of Tortoise's more challenging albums even though it has riff heavy material like the impossible to spell or pronounce 'Yinxianghechengqi.' Album closer 'Charteroak Foundation' in particular will be a sticking point for most, with a guitar line that never seems to play in the same time signature as the rest of the band, a fascinating, melancholic arpeggio of a thing. Beyond this, though, what keeps the album from reaching the lofty heights of Standards is a lack of flow. The album never stands still and never spends too much time in dreamy atmospheres, yet something about the pacing and sequencing of the album lends it a disjointed, rocky air.
None of the songs are bad, none are out of place on the album, but there's an indefinable loss of whole-ness and unity on Beacons Of Ancestorship. A sense that the album runs out of steam after 'The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One' persists in my mind, for what that's worth. This foible aside, Beacons Of Ancestorship stands amongst the strongest releases Tortoise have put out in addition to single-handedly making me re-interested in the band.