Tortoise [Special]

Tortoise [Special]

Tortoise is one of the most important groups of the nineties. Not only are they endowed with a technical expertise way above the norm for this age, but they have also coined a sound that is a true step up quality wise for rock and roll.

Tortoise were formed in 1991 thanks to the initiative of drummer and keyboard player John Herndon (ex Poster Children and also in 5ive Style) along with bassist Doug McCombs (ex Eleventh Dream Day). Together they made up the rhythm section, inspired by the vast rhythm sections of sixties soul music, which bound tempo together with a fusion of funk and dub.

The first singles, Gooseneck/ Mosquito/ Onions Wrapped In Rubber (Torsion, 1993) and Lonesome Sound/ Reservoir/ Sheets (Thrill Jockey) placed their rhythmic experiments in a desolate landscape, streamed with menacing environmental drones.

Tortoise (Thrill Jockey, 1994), remixed later by special "guests" in Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters, is an ingenious experiment in dub music. This combination became a super-group as never seen before: the keyboard player John McEntire (ex Bastro and also in Sea And Cake and Gastr Del Sol also ex-Bastro, David Grubbs), the percussionist Dan Bitney (ex Tar Babies), the guitar player Dave Pajo (ex Slint) and bassist Bundy Brown (another ex-Bastro), that love a constant exchanging of instruments, make up an exceptional ensemble. It isn't surprising that the arrangements are as meticulous as they are modest and sparse. What's more, the cadences are extremely slow, as in a Buddhist trance. The languid instrumental tracks on the record vary from a jazzy narcotic style to a psychedelic dub mood.
For better or for worse, tracks like Magnet Pulls Through are genuine musical theory: with, on one hand, the rigid rhythmic schemes of funk, jazz and dub and, on the other, the painstaking discord of the background. So we get ` Tin Cans & Twine and its joining of a blues theme lightly strummed on the bass guitar chords with a country theme in a cryptic guitar undertone. We also get the jungle of minimalist repetition of Spiderwebbed. The emotions seep out from Night Air, a slow and melancholy blues-jazz, and from The bubbly and jumpy jam of Ry Cooder. The melodies sneak into the fragile and confused rhythmic framework. The great experimental/progressive tradition of Canterbury and kraut-rock (Neu, Can) of the '70s lives again in these offspring of the sonorous breeding ground of Slint and Blind Idiot God.

The 12" single Gamera/ City Dweller (Duophonic) includes two long pieces that are evidence of even greater ambitions. A few months later Why We Fight/ Whitewater comes out (Soul Static Sound).

But Brown leaves the group right away (the start the project Pullman) and Douglas McCombs (degli Eleventh Dream Day) takes his place on the bass guitar. On Millions Now Living Will Never Die (Thrill Jockey, 1996) Tortoise Begin to sound like a progressive-rock band. The format itself of the record is proof of the same: a long Bari-centered suite, followed by a handful of collection pieces.
In the twenty minutes of Djed the influence of Neu and Steve Reich are strongly felt. The beginning is muted, with a melodic pattern repeated by the bass interlaced with a spree of sounds. The pattern multiplies and grows stronger. The keyboards begin to glide over that pulsating rhythm with a series of liquid jazz-rock formulas. After an interval of syncopated dub, the keyboards begin to play in repetition and polyphony, as in the suites of Steve Reich, soon copied by the percussion. During the entire piece, the group experiments with irregular timbers. This is one of the central themes of the record.
The other theme is the deconstruction of the way that rhythm and melody interact giving space to the dynamics of a track. In the guitar argeggios and the vibraphone of Glass Museum and the uproar of The Taut And Tame the dynamics are continuously being questioned. The harmonies sound like progressive-rock, like Canterbury jazz-rock, but instead of leaning to a united ideal, they are fractured and contradicted at every jolting leap.
At the end of the record the group tries to put the puzzle together, and Along The Banks Of Rivers intones a sad film noir theme. It's the only accessible moment on an extremely experimental record, as brainy as a piece of scientific research and as analytical as a mathematical theorem.

Dave Pajo quit the group (to work on his project Aerial M) and black guitarist Jeff Parker took his place (a jazz musician already tested in Isotope 217).

The ensemble for TNT (Thrill Jockey, 1998) thus becomes a sextet: John McEntire on percussion and keyboards, John Herndon on percussion and vibraphone, Dan Bitney on drums and keyboards, Douglas McCombs on bass guitar and Parker on guitar and vibraphone. In total, there are three percussion players and four keyboard players (needless to say, difficult to point out who's playing what). Tortoise are, simply put, a great rhythm section buried in an electronic music scene. Two factors bring this plan to life: Parker plays the guitar like a saxophone, and violins and horns are fit into the arrangements.
For the first two tracks, the title-track and Swing From The Gutters, it's hard not to think of the jazz-rock of Miles Davis, the first being more concept oriented and the second a more bitting tune. But Ten-Day Interval gears decidedly towards A minimalistic direction, with the marimba of McEntire played Steve Reich style, and a piano melody in the background which is split up and slowed down Brian Eno style.
I Set My Face To The Hillside confounds things even more: after the Spanish flavored guitar opening, first a harmonica theme follows sounding made for an epic western and after, a Japanese ballad led on the vibraphone. Suspension Bridge At Iguazu Falls, takes off from the jazzier progressive-rock of Canterbury, but arrives at an exotic interlude with a guitar twang that would make Duan Eddy proud.
Soon after the rhythm experiments follow: Four-Day Interval, a piece made of metronom-like scannings of the keyboard, and above all Jetty, a jumble of leaping beats and woody timbers.
There are few catchier intervals left to keep the audience's attention: The hybrid funk and dub of Equator, The soft jazzy Caribbean feel of In Sarah and little else.
The sound leans on two composite processes, an overlay of sound elements In the studio and a syntony between the members of the group. The former is a deliciously technological fact, the latter a deliciously musical one. But the true trademark of the group is the transfixing tone that is used to execute each and every track.
The critics are right in accusing them of being too studied, but the music of Tortoise belongs more to the classical repertoire (or at least to jazz) than to the rock tradition.

(Translation reviewed by George Mills)

The EP In the Fishtank (Konkurrent, 1999), recorded with Dutch band Ex, inaugurates another instrumental piece, halfway between cross between Can, Sonic Youth and free jazz, The Lawn Of The Lamb. A few short cacophonous pieces showcase a more experimental side of the group.

Douglas McCombs is also active in Brokeback, a collaboration with Chicago Underground Quartet's bassist Noel Kupersmith, Field Recordings From The Cook Country Water Table (Thrill Jockey, 1999) is a collection of quiet, ethereal, sparse, bass-driven instrumentals: the haunting, jazzy bass trio After The Internationals, the nostalgic, Leo Kottke-ian Returns To The Orange Grove, the minimalistic (repetitive) The Field Code, the soulful and zen-like Another Routine Day Breaks (with drums), the swinging ballad-like A Blueprint. A couple of eccentric pastiches (The Great Banks, that fuses Dada, Ennio Morricone and Brazialian pop) and the bizarre hallucination of The Wilson Ave Bridge are not fully developed. Morse Code In The Modern Age (Thrill Jockey, 2001), that features the Calexico axle of Burns and Convertino, is mainly occupied with two lengthy tracks, the oneiric Flat Handed On The WingLives Of The Rhythm Experts (16 mintues), basically a bass duo. Looks At The Bird (2003), Brokeback's third and worst album, sounds like atmospheric muzak rather than avantgarde rock. (12 minutes) and the ambient

John McEntire also recorded with various friends the soundtrack Reach The Rock (Hefty, 1999). Included are seven of his instrumental pieces and a new Tortoise "groove": In A Thimble.

Tortoise's instrumental music constitutes one of the most important chapters of modern day rock, and breaks forth from a rock background (Squirrel Bait, Slint, Bastro, Bitch Magnet, etc) that by now should be considered one of the most significant chapters of rock history. It comes natural to link the progressive jazz style of Tortoise to the two most influential schools of the '70s: Canterbury (Caravan, Matching Mole and of course Soft Machine) and kraut-rock ( Neu and Can, in particular). Just like them, Tortoise are aware of the progress of free-jazz and avant-guarde music (Steve Reich in particular). Just like them, Tortoise are able to transfer those creative itches into a format that is (more or less) rock and are capable of blending the various sources into a tight and harmonious sonic flux. As with Soft Machine and Can, the price to be paid is a certain coldness and frigidity, which are not easily reconciled with the "cruder" tastes of the rock audience.


1994 - Tortoise
1995 - Rhythms, Resolutions And Clusters
♦1996 - Millions Now Living Will Never Die
♦1998 - TNT
♦2001 - Standards
♦2004 - It’s all around you
♦2006 - The Brave and the Bold

♦1993 - Gamera
♦1993 - Mosquito
♦1994 - Lonesome Sound
♦1995 - Why We Fight
♦1996 - Vaus (Yaus)
♦1998 - Autechre
♦1998 - Derrick Carter
♦1998 - Tour
♦1999 - In the Fishtank

Fear The Hands
Live @ Howlin’ Wolf Pt1 / Pt2
The Peel Sessions

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