Simply put, Tortoise has spent nearly 25 years making music that defies description. While the Chicago-based instrumental quintet has nodded to dub, rock, jazz, electronica and minimalism throughout its revered and influential six-album discography, the resulting sounds have always been distinctly, even stubbornly, their own.

It’s a fact that remains true on “The Catastrophist,” Tortoise’s first studio album in nearly seven years. And it’s an album where moody, synth-swept jams like the opening title track cozy up next to hypnotic, bass-and-beat missives like “Shake Hands With Danger” and a downright strange cover of David Essex’s 1973 radio smash sung by U.S. Maple’s Todd Rittman. Throughout, the songs transcend expectations as often as they delight the eardrums.

Tortoise, comprised of multi-instrumentalists Dan Bitney, John Herndon, Doug McCombs, John McEntire and Jeff Parker, has always thrived on sudden bursts of inspiration. And for “The Catastrophist,” the spark came in 2010 when the group was commissioned by the City of Chicago to compose a suite of music rooted in its ties to the area’s noted jazz and improvised music communities.

Tortoise then performed those five loose themes at a handful of concerts, and “when we finally got around to talking about a new record, the obvious solution to begin with was to take those pieces and see what else we could do with them,” says McEntire, at whose Soma Studios the band recorded the new album. “It turned out that for them to work for Tortoise, they needed a bit more of a rethink in terms of structure. They’re all pretty different in the sense that at first they were just heads and solos. Now, they’re orchestrated and complex.”

“All of the songs went through a pretty intensive process of restructuring,” adds Parker. “We actually had quite a lot of material that we ended up giving up on. Oftentimes, we’ll shelve ideas and come back to them years later.”

The album’s single “Gesceap” embodies the transformation of the original suite commissions, as it morphs from two gently intersecting synth lines into a pounding, frenzied full-band finish. “To a certain extent it’s more of a reflection of how we actually sound when we play live,” says McEntire of Tortoise’s heavier side. “That hasn’t always been captured as well on past albums.”

Elsewhere, “Hot Coffee” resurrects an idea abandoned from the band’s 2004 album “It’s All Around You,” gliding through only-on-a- Tortoise-album sections of funktastic bass lines, straight-up dance beats and Parker’s fusion-flecked guitar bursts. “It’s progressive experimental music with pop sensibilities,” says Parker.

“Rock On,” which McEntire says he and McCombs simultaneously had the idea to cover after having remembered hearing it on the radio all the time as kids, isn’t the only vocal moment on “The Catastrophist.” Also included is the bittersweet, honest-to-goodness soul ballad “Yonder Blue,” sung by Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley. “We’d finished the track and decided it would be good to have vocals on it,” recalls McEntire. “Robert Wyatt was our first choice, but he had just retired and politely said no. We were discussing asking Georgia to do something, but not that track in particular. Then we realized it would totally work.”

Tortoise is planning an extensive world tour in support of “The Catastrophist.” Admits McEntire, “figuring out how to reproduce these songs live will be a bit of a challenge. But I also feel like it might be time to dip into the back catalog a bit. The pool we draw from has been really consistent for quite awhile.

As ever, Tortoise has conjured sounds on “The Catastrophist” that aren’t being purveyed anywhere else in music today. There’s a deeply intuitive interplay between the group members that comes only from two decades of experimentation, revision and improvisation. And at a time when our brains are constantly bombarded by myriad distractions, “The Catastrophist” reminds us that there’s something much greater out there. All we have to do is listen. 

Tour Dates

    Trix Antwerp, Belgium Sam Prekop Tickets
    Tivoli Utrecht, Netherlands Sam Prekop Tickets
    Palace St. Gallen, Switzerland Sam Prekop Tickets
    Antigel Festival Geneve, Switzerland Sam Prekop Tickets
    Stall 6 Zurich, Switzerland Sam Prekop Tickets
    franz.K Reutlingen, Germany Sam Prekop Tickets
    Arena Vienna, Austria Sam Prekop Tickets
    A38 Budapest, Hungary Sam Prekop Tickets
    Mochvara Zagreb, Croatia Sam Prekop Tickets
    Locomotiv Club Bologna, Italy Sam Prekop Tickets
    Monk Club Rome, Italy Sam Prekop Tickets
    Magnolia Club Milan, Italy Sam Prekop Tickets
    CRR Concert Hall (Jazzfestival) Istanbul, Turkey The Ex feat. Ken Vandermark Tickets
    Village Underground London, UK Tickets
    The Cedar Cultural Center Minneapolis, MN w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    Majestic Theatre Madison, WI w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    The Blind Pig Ann Arbor, MI w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    Lee's Place Toronto, ON w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    Fairmount Montreal, QC w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    Iron Horse Northampton, MA w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    The Sinclair Cambridge, MA w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    (Le) Poisson Rouge New York, NY w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    Littlefield Brooklyn, NY w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    Underground Arts Philadelphia, PA w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    Black Cat Washington, D.C. w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    The Southern Charlottesville, VA w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    The Orange Peel Asheville, NC Tickets
    Headliners Music Hall Louisville, KY w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    The Southgate House Revival - Sanctuary Newport, KY w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    Radio Radio Indianapolis, IN w/ Mind Over Mirrors Tickets
    Umeda Club Quattro Osaka, Japan
    Nagoya Club Quattro Nagoya, Japan
    TSUTAYA O-EAST Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
    Radio Boise Tuesday @ Neurolux Boise, ID Tickets
    The Crocodile Seattle, WA Tickets
    Imperial Vancouver, BC Tickets
    Revolution Hall Portland, OR Tickets
    Gundlach Bundschu Winery (Redwood Barn) presented by (((folkYEAH!))) Sonoma, CA Tickets
    Great American Music Hall San Francisco, CA Tickets
    Teragram Ballroom Los Angeles, CA Tickets
    Belly Up Solana Beach, CA Tickets
    Desert Daze Phoenix at Crescent Ballroom Phoenix, AZ Tickets
    Mohawk Austin, TX Tickets
    Dada Dallas, TX Tickets
    The Ready Room St. Louis, MO Tickets
    Metro Chicago, IL Tickets
    Granada Theater Lawrence, KS Tickets
    Bluebird Denver, CO Tickets
    Urban Lounge Salt Lake City, UT Tickets
    Launchpad Albuquerque, NM Tickets
    Cap10100 Torino, Italy Tickets
    Latteria Molloy Brescia, Italy Tickets
    Feierwerk Munich, Germany Tickets
    Das Bett Frankfurt, Germany Tickets
    TBA Paris, France
    Kulturkirche Koln, Germany Tickets
    La Rodia Besancon, France
    Primavera Sound Barcelona, Spain
    This Is Not A Love Song Festival Nimes, France
    Metronum Toulouse, France
    CCM John Lennon Limoges, France Tickets
    Les Trinitaires Metz, France
    Le Grand Mix Tourcoing, France
    NOS Primavera Sound Porto, Portugal Tickets
    Asbru @ ATP Iceland Keflavik, Iceland John Carpenter, Les Savy Fav, Thee Oh Sees Tickets
    Columbia Theater Berlin, Germany Tickets

Tour Dates

    Trix Antwerp, Belgium Sam Prekop Tickets
    Tivoli Utrecht, Netherlands Sam Prekop Tickets
    Palace St. Gallen, Switzerland Sam Prekop Tickets

More dates




    Beacons Of Ancestorship

  • 1 High Class Slim Came Floatin' In
  • 2 Prepare Your Coffin
  • 3 Northern Something
  • 4 Gigantes
  • 5 Penumbra
  • 6 Yinxianghechengqi
  • 7 The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One
  • 8 Minors
  • 9 Monument Six One Thousand
  • 10 de Chelly
  • 11 Charteroak Foundation