Album reviews: new music from Tortoise, Saul Williams, Dream Theater, Fat White Family
From alt-rock royalty to nihilistic country-punk via hip-hop's laureate and a prodigious prog-rock concept piece, this week's album reviews cover the waterfront
Following their jaunt through Asia and debut show in Hong Kong in 2014, brooding post-rock mainstays Tortoise returned to the studio to complete work on album number seven. Arriving almost seven years after their previous recording, Beacons of Ancestorship, the new set takes inspiration from the jazz music scene of the bands hometown, says bassist Doug McComb. “About one-third of The Catastrophist originated from a commission for the City of Chicago. The idea was for us to write a new set of material that would work in collaboration with musicians from the jazz community in Chicago.” Thankfully, the mostly instrumental indie rockers haven’t fallen deeply into an acid jazz trance. The one notable misstep, Hot Coffee, strays worryingly towards 1970s porn-funk, but elsewhere the jazz influence is kept to lengthy electro-synth grooves that lend the post-rock workouts subtle new flavours, while remaining typically Tortoise. Adding some rare vocals is Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley on the floaty Yonder Blue, as the experimental quintet show that even after 25 years they are still unafraid to take risks.
From his Rick Rubin-produced debut Amethyst Rockstar, to 2007’s Trent Reznor-helmed The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!, New York actor, rapper and activist Saul Williams has always had a knack for sourcing the perfect sonic accompaniment to his social and political commentary. Only 2011’s scrappy Volcanic Sunlight, produced by Renaud Letang, failed to hit the mark. Five years on and the “poet laureate of hip hop” turns to veteran beat maker Justin Warfield for his fifth studio album, MartyrLoserKing, and the harsh industrial loops and rhythms from the former She Wants Revenge frontman provide a more consistent backdrop for Williams’ angsty musings on the digital age. Warpaint’s Emily Kokal appears on Burundi, a song about the black market trade network that shows off Williams’ wordplay (“Whitney Houston’s crack pipe/ The greatest love of all”), and his imperishable flow of rebellious energy, the singer ranting “I’m a hacker in your hard drive” over a thumping beat that’s dropped straight out of the electronica’s 1990s heyday.
Formed in 1985, American prog-rockers Dream Theater are certainly no strangers to the concept album. Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory from 1999 revolved around themes of murder and betrayal, while the band’s Twelve-Step Suite, a set of songs based on drummer Mike Portnoy’s battle with alcoholism, appeared across five subsequent albums. In a career crammed with boundary pushing peaks, the aptly titled double album, The Astonishing, may be Dream Theater’s grandest and most ambitious statement yet. Recorded with the Prague Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Beck’s dad, David Campbell, the sci-fi rock opus spans 34 tracks over more than two hours. Written by guitarist John Petrucci, The Astonishing progresses much like a film narrative, vocalist James LaBrie singing in a vast array of styles as the voices of the many characters. From textural interludes to classical prog-metal anthems (The Gift of Music, Three Days) and the odd power ballad (Chosen) it’s a full-on listening experience that requires some disciplined attention.
Songs For Our Mothers
“Some people will call this Songs For Our Mothers the most unpleasant album of this year, if not of their entire generation,” states the press release for Fat White Family’s sophomore album. If you caught the strangely wondrous gonad-swinging video for their stand alone single Touch the Leather, or have seen the Londoners’ incendiary live show, it would come as no surprise to hear these 10 new tracks of grimy garage rock are “the work of a bunch of drink- and drug-wracked nihilist degenerates”. Released on their own imprint with songs concerning the death of Goebbels, murderous doctor Harold Shipman and, on Tinfoil Deathstar, good ol’ brown sugar, the follow-up to their 2013 debut Champagne Holocaust clearly finds the twisted misfits with one hand down the grubby pants of Satan. Surf-rock opener Whitest Boy on the Beach is a snaking disco monster, full of subtle wit and a sneaky infectious groove, but from then on in it’s all aboard the debauchery funk bus, especially on Hits Hits Hits, a song about the abusive cocaine-fuelled relationship of Ike and Tina Turner that really hits the sweet spot.