Having delivered post rock’s landmark release (1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die) and single-handedly making prog rock fashionable for a generation of indie-rock fans—who otherwise never would’ve considered listening to their parents’ Yes records—the members of Tortoise are in a comfortable but precarious place, possessing a built-in fanbase but one expecting the band to practically reinvent itself with every release. If anything monumental is going to come from instrumental rock, it’s been assumed Tortoise would have a hand in creating it, and It’s All Around You can’t help but fail against such long odds.
With its fifth album, the Chicago quintet is assuredly in fine form, its arrangements still replete with dazzling detail and sophisticated interplay, making its work more akin to the artfulness of jazz improv than the self-serious, unicorn-riding progressive rock of yore. In fact, the burbling beats, chimes, vibraphone and lushly synthesized vocals (courtesy of Kelly Hogan) of “The Lithium Shifts” and the dark collapse and tip-toeing starburst of “Crest,” cut a straighter, more emotionally directive path than nearly anything in the band’s catalog. The dark simmer and overlapping dissonance of “Unknown” and the ominously shuddering “Dot/Eyes” expand upon Tortoise’s established sonic motifs before disintegrating into an amorphous ether.
The problem then is that the band’s done most if not all of this before, and while some might contend this release is a refinement of its previous sound, others could just as easily claim that its precision comes at the expense of a life-giving spontaneity. Whatever the case, it should be more than enough to placate those who find themselves solidly in the band’s camp and frustrate those unwilling to pay attention.