Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Beacons of Post-rock: Tortoise

June 16, 2009

I’m writing this review from Xishuangbanna, a region in southwestern China. It sits along the Mekong river, not very far from the borders of Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. It’s hot, humid, and currently raining almost every day – monsoon season and all. You know how it goes. Anyway, the general attitude is very laid-back, not so much lazy as unwilling to move fast in the heat. I like it here. I like sitting here and drinking chilled mango juice, and I like listening to Tortoise’s new album while I’m doing it.

Beacons of Ancestorship is the name. It’s out June 23rd, fully five years after their last release. This thing has been a long time coming for fans of the band, and trust me, there are lots of them. Quick history lesson: Tortoise is a hugely important band. They’ve been around a while. Back in the early 1990s, they helped to create what is now known as post-rock. If you’re not familiar with the genre, it boils down to music that isn’t rock, but is played on rock instruments. It’s primarily instrumental, and almost always experimental. I like to think that post-rock bands don’t create songs, so much as things that grow and develop as the music continues. If that sounds silly, go listen to some music from the likes of Explosions In The Sky or Slint. You’ll know what I’m talking about.

That being said, Tortoise is a little different. It’s the like the guy that’s so far ahead of the curve that nobody knows what he’s talking about until five years later, and suddenly they understand. Or maybe they don’t. They pull from lots of different genres, showing influence from the likes of jazz, progressive rock, and a liberal dose of electronica/techno. Their sound is synth-heavy, along with electric guitar, drums, and bass.

The album opens with something of a bang. “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” has a great intro – drums and bass give it a very alt-rock feel initially, which then gives way to synth that feels more like Daft Punk. The entire time layers of sound are meshing, moving from dissonance to resolution and back again. The song has a great beat to it, especially with the synth. It feels much more energetic and lively than your typical post-rock. It’s fun… part funk, part electronic, all post-rock.

“Northern Something” has a percussive intro, followed by some intense synth. It’s possibly one of my favorite parts of this album yet. There’s definitely some techno/trance influence, and trust me, it works really well here. Beacons of Ancestorship has an energetic quality to it that is imminently danceable, which is pretty cool. This song has something of a Latin influence to the rhythms employed, and it works really well with the ever-present, buzzing synth. The track was over too soon, if you ask me. I would’ve taken more of that stuff. There’s no stopping these guys, though. On to the next track!

One of the major features of Tortoise’s sound is blending different styles together. In “Gigantes,” you’ve got a sweet guitar bit that works well against energetic drums; it’s jazz meets trance/electronic meets post-rock. “Penumbra” is something of an interlude that starts out sounding like videogame soundtrack, then adding some kind of retro 1940s-Hollywood dreamy bit in the background, and “de Chelly” layers synth on top of a mellow organ track. Like so many bands of that genre, they are a little difficult to describe, tending to mix genres and styles at will. Effects are numerous and varied. This album is an experience, to say the least. There aren’t any lyrics, nothing that you can sing off-key in front of your friends, but that’s probably a good thing. Nobody wants to hear you sing anyway.

The wildest song of the album was “Yinxianghechengqi” (the name, if you’re curious, is some run-together Chinese). This sucker has some of the heaviest and hardest distortion of anything else on the album so far, and it’s on, well, everything. Except maybe the drums. Not sure how you would go about adding distortion to them, but I digress. This one is rowdy, a bit spastic, and sounds like the kind of music I imagine Salvador Dali might have made, were he a  musician and not a painter. It’s loud,  a little overwhelming, and exciting because of it. The level drops off at just the right moment, leaving you with a sort of haunting, minute-long echo of what was going on just a second before. Brilliant.

“Charteroak Foundation” rounds out the album with a dark, foreboding tone at the beginning that’s absolutely delicious. Add in in bass and drums at a different tempo, and the tone completely changes. These guys are the masters of unlikely fusion. Extra, higher-pitched synth falls in on top of everything else. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the stuff of genius.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it – Beacons of Ancestorship isn’t exactly what I would describe as pop music. You’ve got to be into this sort of thing to dig it, or at least open-minded with regard to your music. If that’s you, awesome. Enjoy this thing. Not sure yet? We’ve got a link to a free download of “Prepare Your Coffin”, as well as a music video for the song, so give Tortoise a listen while you go about your business today.

Dark. Funny. Shiver.

June 10, 2009

Mona Medusa is a relatively new band, and, unlike most new bands, they seem to have already come up with a unique, easily recognizable sound for their new album Shiver. This isn’t generic rock. It isn’t alt rock, at least in the generic sense of the term. It isn’t even really dark wave, which is the closest I could come up with that they match. It’s a combination of the three, a fun-but-disturbing mix of happy and sad vocals, laid down over guitar and drums, with the periodic violin or accordion part. Sounds interesting, right? That’s because it is.

The songs “What Is Will Be” and “Ousire” have an energetic feel to them – is that possible while making dark music? Apparently so, because Mona Medusa pulls it off cleanly. There’s a hint of a rebellion and angst in the lead vocals, though it’s contrasted against backup vocals that swing from creepy, wordless harmonizing to amusing bits that shake and quiver like the stereotypical ghost sound you might hear in an old horror movie. It’s worth nothing that for the most part background vocals are female, with male lead vocals. They sound pretty good together, though I think the backup vocals could be a bit stronger. “Ousire” ends well, with tension that builds, builds, builds, and finally resolves. Touches like that are what make an album.

Mona Medusa takes on a different tone mid-album with “Water and Women (reprise).” For starters, it’s quieter, and acoustic; the combination is actually a very nice sound, though quite the departure from the rest of the album. The previously-mentioned accordion comes into play on this track to great effect, adding some excellent flavor to the song. “Fire and Glass,” another change from their typical sound, is a short and sweet instrumental break. It’s a string intro with violin and acoustic guitar that’s gorgeous. It leads nicely into the next song, “Blood on Blood.”

Speaking of “Blood on Blood,” it was one of my favorites of the album, with a sweet, distorted guitar intro and a more triumphant, cathartic tone to it than the rest of the album. Mona Medusa displays some great instrumental versatility in their music, primarily thanks to member Andrea Lee – she provides the violin and accordion parts that round out their sound and help to distinguish their sound from that of other bands. The tone of song is summed up by the lyrics, “I want to rise / I want to rise through the fire.”

Shiver is a fine offering from a band that is just starting to hit their stride. Mona Medusa manages to cover a wide range of tone and emotion across the tracks without making anything that is distinctly not-them; you can listen to any of these and tell that it’s Mona Medusa that made it. They’ve made it further than many bands ever do – finding “their” sound. I’d like to see more and stronger interplay between the male and female vocals; they place nicely off each other when singing full-out. They still have room to develop and grow their sound, but Mona Medusa is off to a great start with Shiver.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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