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Tortoise played the Bell House — Bang on a Can Sunday night

by Martin Longley

DOWNLOAD: Tortoise – Prepare Your Coffin (MP3)

Tortoise @ the Bell House in Brooklyn – May 30, 2009 (Ben Sisto)
Bell House

Less than a month before Beacons Of Ancestorship is released, Tortoise hit town for two highly contrasting gigs over a single weekend. First, they played a sold-out show at The Bell House, in Brooklyn’s deserted Gowanus canal zone, then they climax the Bang On A Can marathon at the World Financial Center (tonight, 5/31). It’s a return to full-on activity, as Tortoise’s sixth studio album is effectively their first in five years. And now, their summer tour schedule is dawning.

Even though The Bell House is at capacity, this still doesn’t make the gig uncomfortably crowded, particularly when taking advantage of the handy raised-bar area. The stage is kinda old-fashioned in its open-access bandstand look, allowing plenty of room for the massed multi-instrumentalist antics of Tortoise. All is in near-darkness, so the constant swapping of instruments isn’t so disruptive or distracting.

Once at the vanguard of research into improvised roccolage, the quintet have become old established experimenters, whose former ramming together of cut-up elements now seems like a slickly-gliding fusion. Their sound is still their own, though: a unique mixture of rock, jazz, electro and minimalism, with all parts becoming Tortoisian once fed through their stylistic masticator.

Sometimes, the Tortoise output can become a tad stodgy, veering from nimble post-rock into behemoth prog. It’s as though the band have become so familiar with its once-wild techniques that their results now sound too pre-formed, with all spiny encrustations smoothed into an aerodynamically efficient shape. At some points, they are sounding alarmingly like Yes. Most of the power surges as the Johns Herndon and McEntire coincide simultaneously on the drumkits, driving through interlocking beats inspired by samba, techno and the entire continent of Africa, sometimes during a single song. There’s real marimba and a virtual vibes/percussion sample-trigger set-up too, ably deployed on the more minimalist stretches. The core Tortoise set lasts for an hour, but their enthusiastically-won encore stretches out for another 25 minutes, beginning with “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In”, which also opens up the new album. It’s the best tune of the evening, an immediate grower that’s set to become a Tortoise classic. This is finding them at their techno end, and it’s these moments, as well as their several headbanging rock-riffing cluster-outbursts that provide the peaks of the show.

If you miss Tortoise this time around, they’ll be back again in July. Their new video for “Prepare Your Coffin” is below…

Tortoise – Prepare Your Coffin from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

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