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Steady As It Goes: Tortoise's Latest Travels Land Them at GAMH

Tortoise will be forever linked my noggin with the dude who yelled from the audience during the Chicago ensemble’s super-heated set at Bimbo’s 365 Club around the time of Standards (Thrill Jockey, 2001).

“Why d’ya have to be so good?” the heckler hollered, almost plaintively. And we all had to chuckle a little -- no one else in the jam-packed crowd was complaining that night. The tech bubble had burst, the pink slips were flying, San Francisco’s local music scene was roiling with creative abandon, warehouse shows, and imaginative nouveau-Gold-Rushers with plenty of time on their hands. And Tortoise was the out-of-town star of the moment, still coasting on the rich fumes of 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die and 1998’s TNT (both Thrill Jockey), its preeminent place as a post-rock standard bearer, and lauded for its brainy invention, wide-roving musicianship, and locked-in intensity live.

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

 


Now the band is back with its first studio album in five years, and it sounds for all the world as if John McEntire, John Hearndon, Jeff Parker, Doug McCombs, and Dan Bitney are looking back -- and ahead. How else to explain a title like Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey)?

Certainly standards and ancestors have played as a great role in Tortoise’s slow but sure progress, as they have with so many jazz forebears -- though one is hard-pressed to imagine Ornette Coleman or Rahsaan Roland Kirk going as fizzily, in-the-red dissonant and hardcore abrasive as Tortoise’s burly, buzzing lo-fi punk track, “Yinxianghechengqi.” The name conjures memories of all-girl Beijing punk unit Hang on the Box.

But, Tortoise being Tortoise, there’s no way things can stay that simple: hardcore is simply one texture or tool in Ancestorship’s arsenal. Witness the Ennio Morricone spaghetti zen meditation, “The Fall of Seven Diamonds,” that follows. Or the carnival bristle and favela bravado of the sassy, Southside-goes-Rio-by-way-of-Miami “Northern Something.” Or the cutting, Yes-like prog-osity of “Prepare Your Coffin.” Or the key-and-bass-centered Cluster funk of “High Class Slim Came Floating In,” which makes one imagine Tortoise succumbing to the minimal, motorik charms of Krautrock forbears like Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, La Dusseldorf, and Neu!’s Michael Rother like so many other musicians have of late. It’s as if the band has reset its compass for new lands, populated by predecessors it never realized it had, and after 2004’s underwhelming It’s All Around You (Thrill Jockey), it’s heartening to hear these re-energized avant-garde talents finding their bearings once again. 

Tortoise performs Monday, July 13, 8 p.m., at Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, S.F. Pit er Pat open. $25. (415) 885-0750, www.gamh.com