REVIEW: Tortoise – “The Catastrophist”

The Catastrophist

As an initial disclaimer, I must admit that I’ve never listened to Tortoise before. After previously stating this fact on social media, I was assured that such a thing was impossible, but a brief perusal of their back catalog quickly revealed that my initial sense was correct; I had really never listened to this band.

I’m not new to instrumental post-rock, but somehow Tortoise never made it onto my radar. I’m told Louisville indie rock hero Dave Pajo was once in the band, which means that I should have, at some point, been exposed to them. But, if I’ve heard their previous work, it was never noteworthy enough to my ears to ask anybody what it was that I was hearing.

So here I am, auditory virginity intact, listening to the new Tortoise record, The Catastrophist, via the Soundcloud stream posted on the web site of The Guardian. The Guardian includes a brief explanation from bass player Doug McCombs about the content of the new record, which he says was inspired by a collaboration with Chicago jazz musicians. You wouldn’t really notice that by listening to the record, however, because there is no hint of improvisation anywhere on it. I mean, it kind of sounds “jazzy” at times but it lacks any of the soul or free spirit that makes jazz so great.

Much of the new Tortoise record sounds like it was sampled from the soundtracks of the old Mega Man games made for Nintendo. Those games were awesome, and their music was catchy, but Tortoise’s music is not particularly catchy. Each song just kind of takes up aural space for a while then stops.

The song Gescap, which I learned through two minutes of Youtube research was the first single used to promote the album prior to its release, is a good example. All the parts fit together, but the song just kind of buzzes with 8-bit repetitiveness for seven and a half minutes without going anywhere particularly interesting. It seems to tread in place, repeating everything over and over to no significant effect.

“The Clearing Fills” is another example. It starts off pleasantly atmospheric, but the beat is hollow and annoying and the song just seems to rattle around for a while. And that’s the problem with all of these songs, really. They don’t do anything. They lack any of the greatness of slow-build-to-big-payoff post-rock (think God is an Astronaut, Explosions in the Sky, or If These Trees Could Talk), but don’t work as dance songs, either.

There are songs with potential, like “Hot Coffee” and “Tesseract.” They both have good, funky beats. The former makes me think of Starsky & Hutch. The latter feels like it was sampled from a movie about New York City in the early 1980s. But both songs occupy a weird space: not really dance music, not really jazz, and certainly not authentic funk.

The album does have one bright moment, though. Two minutes into “At Odds With Logic,” the final song on the album, Tortoise channels a bit of Black Sabbath with some dirty 70s protometal heaviness. I had been waiting the whole record for something like this – something truly banging. But, it’s the last part of the last song. It took a long time to get there and you’ll get nothing more like it.

This is really all just background music to me, at times with a hint of influence from actual Muzak. I don’t really understand bands that make background music like this, or people who claim to be really into it. I picture Tortoise whining online that the people who go to their shows are rude or aren’t respectful of their art, like crybabies Tom Krell from How to Dress Well or Mark Kozelek from Sun Kil Moon. “I don’t know if it’s because people are self-conscious or if it’s because they don’t have respect for what creative people are trying to do. Sometimes crowds just don’t care,” said Krell, complaining about a show in Louisville in late 2014.

No, man, the reason people talk during your shows is because you make boring background music that doesn’t do anything captivating or make anybody want to shut up and pay attention to what you’re doing. You’re just occupying ear space.

Maybe it’s not fair or just a sign of my own ignorance, but I would include this new Tortoise record in with the boring guys who are really sure of their own genius, but can’t seem to get the crowd to stop talking over them while they play. This is music for coffee shops, or the existentially bored. If you prefer (mostly) instrumental post-rock that also has a point to it, listen elsewhere.

Joe Dunman is a Louisville, Kentucky attorney whose practice focuses on civil rights and employment law. He tweets @JoeDunman and blogs at

EDITOR’S NOTE: We don’t typically do reviews of non-Louisville bands, but not only are renowned instrumental indie legends Tortoise set to play town in March, but they also have featured members of Slint, do feature former members of Bastro and The For Carnation, and have teamed up with Bonnie Prince Billy a time or two. They may not be from Louisville, but they’ve certainly contributed plenty to the scene here.