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Tortoise return to Japan

TOKYO (TR) – Tortoise’s blending of dub, electronica, and jazz over its two decades in existence has established the instrumental five-piece as the band that brought progressive rock into the present.

Yet 2009’s “Beacons of Ancestorship” sees the Chicago-based band, which will appear in Japan for two shows this week in Tokyo and Osaka, going in a different direction.

“Beacons,” the band’s sixth full-length, is much harder to pin down compared to its predecessor, the almost ambient “It’s All Around You” (2004) — and that was entirely deliberate. “It is our attempt to move on to something new,” explains bassist and guitarist Douglas McCombs. “We intentionally made it more raw, leaving some imperfection in the mix.”

The album, whose tracks were showcased in Japan last year at the Fuji Rock Festival, veers from the guitar-heavy “Yinxianghechengqi” to the throbbing and clicking “Northern Something,” which is almost danceable. “We don’t usually have a concept for an album until it is partially completed and then we let the songs point the way,” McCombs says.

The groove and disconnected guitar on its self-titled debut (1994) put their label, Thrill Jockey, at the forefront of the indie-rock world, and the pulsing minimalism of the follow-up, “Millions Now Living Will Never Die,” led to their sound being anointed as a genre (post-rock).

The rough approach to “Beacons” lent itself to reinterpretations. On the vinyl release “Remixes,” Eye from Japan’s noise-rock outfit Boredoms reworks “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In,” a blend of buzzing synths and drumming in its first form that becomes an intensified game of instrumental hopscotch in its new incarnation.

As evidenced by numerous tours and special compilation releases, Tortoise and Japan have enjoyed a mutual appreciation — indeed, the 1995 single “Gamera” is a tribute to J-cinema’s most famous reptilian monster. Yet McCombs isn’t quite sure why the band has maintained a steady popularity, postulating that it could be due to a shared interest in creative music.

“I think our Japanese audience can tell that we’re committed to continue making things interesting,” he says.

Note: Tortoise plays Shinsaibashi Club Quattro on May 10 and Tokyo Laforet Museum on May 11. Tickets are 6,300 yen. Both shows start at 7 p.m. See Smash for details. This article originally appeared in the May 7 issue of The Japan Times.