(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Tortoise (1994), 7.5/10
Millions Now Living , 8.5/10
TNT, 8/10
In the Fishtank, 6/10
John McEntire: Reach The Rock, 6/10
Brokeback: Field Recordings , 6.5/10
Brokeback: Morse Code , 6.5/10
Brokeback: Looks At The Bird , 5/10
Tricolor: Mirth + Feckless , 6/10
Tricolor: Nonparticipant + MIlk, 5/10
Toe 2000 , 6/10
Isotope 217: The Unstable Molecule , 6/10
Isotope 217: Utonian Automatic , 5/10
Isotope 217: Who Stole The I Walkman , 5/10
Standards , 6/10
It's All Around You (2004), 4.5/10
The Brave And The Bold (2005), 3/10
Beacons Of Ancestorship (2009), 5/10
The Catastrophist (2016), 4/10

(Clicka qui per la versione Italiana)

Tortoise basically reinvented progressive-rock for the new millenium when they anchored their musical drifting to dub and jazz pillars. The geometry of their sound started with the very foundations of the line-up, which was basically the union of two formidable rhythm sections, Poster Children's drummer John Herndon and Eleventh Dream Day's bassist Doug McCombs plus Gastr Del Sol's rhythm section (drummer John McEntire and bassist Bundy Ken Brown), augmented with Tar Babies' percussionist Dan Bitney. They were not only inspired by the historical rhythm sections of funk and dub, but they set out to obscure that legacy with a more far-reaching approach. On Tortoise (1994) each musician covered a lot of ground and alternated at different instruments, but basically this was a band founded on rhythm. With Slint's guitarist Dave Pajo replacing Brown on bass, Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996) streamlined the mind-boggling polyphony of their jams and achieved a sort of post-classical harmony, a new kind of balance and interaction between melodies and rhythms. Djed, in particular, could swing between sources as distant as Neu and Steve Reich while retaining a fundamental unity, flow and sense of purpose. The jazz component and academic overtones began to prevail. The sextet (McEntire, Herndon, Bitney, McCombs, Pajo and black guitarist Jeff Parker) that recorded TNT (1998) had in mind the Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles Davis' historical quintet, not King Crimson or Slint, but the result was nonetheless a magisterial application of Djed's aesthetics.

(Translated from my original Italian text by Carol Teri)

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 Wing (12 minutes) and the ambient Lives 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.

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.

(Original text by Piero Scaruffi)

If Tortoise is "post-rock", then Isotope 217 is "post-jazz". Three well-respected jazz players (Matt Lux on bass, Sara Smith on trombone and Rob Mazurek on cornet) form the core of the ensemble, even if Dan Bitney (percussion), Jeff Parker (guitar) and John Herndon (percussion) get the press attention. The reference point for The Unstable Molecule (Thrill Jockey, 1998) is Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, and sometimes Herbie Hancock's Sextant (Phonometrics), but the influece of Can is all over the place (Kryptonite Smokes The Red Line, Beneath The Undertow) and the mood borders on Kafka-ian expressionism (La Jetee) and Dali-ian surrealism (Prince Namor).

Jeff Parker is in control on the follow-up, Utonian Automatic (Thrill Jockey, 1999). Sara Smith is gone and Rob Mazurek is not in his most creative mood. Bundy Brown and John McEntire fine-tune the sound from behind the curtain, but the improvised instrumentals rarely (LUH, Audio Champion) display the neurotic verve of the first album. Mostly, the group wants to integrate their live improvisation with dub mixing and electronic production techniques. The result is that most tracks are atmospheric rather than funky.

Who Stole The I Walkman (Thrill Jockey, 2000) displays the disparate talents of Herndon, Parker, Bitney and Mazurek in a superb manner, but only a few tracks (Moot Ang, Harm-O-Lodge, Sint_D) avoid the danger of self-indulgence, and the rest drifts towards a convoluted form of electronic jazz-rock that only the players can enjoy. Kidtronix is a good example of the way (sprightly and lively) in which they rarely (alas) behave. The collage of Meta Bass is a good example of the way (opportunistic and fictitious) in which they often (alas) manufacture music out of erudite expedients.

Tricolor (a reference to the three races of the members) is a jazz-rock trio led by Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker (an African-American) with Japanese jazzman Tatsu Aoki and Caucasian drummer David Pavkovic of Boxhead Ensemble. Mirth + Feckless (Atavistic, 1999) is their first album. Parker and Pavkovic are also protagonists of Toe 2000 (Truckstop, 1998), that also features bassist Doug McCombs and singer Yoko Noge. Parker is protagonist of the convoluted and jazzy soundscape of instrumentals such as Pansy and Ball, and especially of the surreal and harrowing Frog, even if Pavkovic is conducting the orchestra. Noge mumbles the paleolitic blues of Mono and Bolo over the disjointed counterpoint of the trio. The more lively, 11-minute jam Stick, dressed with African tribal drums, Noge's chanting and Brazilian guitar moves, stands out. Pavkovic, who had already featured on several rock and jazz albums, also played in Parker's Tricolor and released another Toe 2000 album, Variant (Truckstop, 2000).
These albums are mainly showcases for Parker's eccentric guitar sound, although Tricolor also displays two understated elements of Parker's art: melody and cross-pollination. Most tracks rely on a strong melodic infrastructure, that is only cautiously derailed by Parker's experiments. And almost every track hides quotations of non-jazz genres, whether tribal African music or voodoo blues or minimalism.

Nonparticipant + Milk (Atavistic, 2001) is a live recording of Tricolor (Nonparticipant being the main composition, but Deceit being their tribute to the classic sound of Miles Davis).

With Standards (Thrill Jockey, 2001), Tortoise's cold, intellectual approach to rock music was beginning to wear thin. Sure, the album stands as a deconstructed and abridged history of rock music (almost every snippet of sound pays tribute to one of rock's giants). But there is a difference between erudition and elegance, between competence and sophistication. This is the work of musicians with talent but no vision. Seneca, that starts out like a Jimi Hendrix jam, then indulges in a synth melody over syncopated polyrhythm and quasi-reggae guitar, and, after complicating the rhythmic base with harpsichord and hand-clapping, winks at Soft Machine's jazz-rock; and Monica, that sounds like a convoluted, warped, cubistic version of Frank Zappa's orchestral music, are perhaps the most engaging moments. The rest ranges from smooth liquid jams with minimalist overtones (Bros) to vignettes that blend Brian Eno and Matching Mole (Benway) to relaxing muzak (Six Pack) to imitations of Sixties soundtracks (Blackjack).

The single Gentle Cupping The Chin And The Ape (Thrill Jockey, 2001) is actually far interesting than anything on the album, with its decomposition of drum'n'bass, its digital jazz, its broken videogame sounds.

It's All Around You (Thrill Jockey, 2004) is "Tortoise-lite": the same pseudo-jazz jamming and chilly timbric interplay, but thin and sleepy, as if influenced by the ECM aesthetics. They might be looking for the place where post-rock mutates into supermarket muzak (as in the opener, the quasi-bossanova It's All Around You). Memories of the old class surface in The Lithium Stiffs (with Kelly Hogan on vocals) and Dot/Eyes. A two-sided single would have been enough.

The Brave And The Bold (Overcoat, 2006) was a collaboration between Tortoise and Bonnie "Prince" Billy (Will Oldham) via ten covers.

The three-cd box-set A Lazarus Taxon (Thrill Jockey, 2006) collects rarities and the most relevant album tracks.

Beacons Of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey, 2009), Tortoise's first album in five years, was more electronic and jazz, and virtually reinvented post-rock by recycling its stereotypes for a new kind of existential lounge music. The eight-minute High Class Slim Came Floatin' In is a smooth funk-jazz jam that focuses on electronic timbres and (lo and behold) melody (even after it erupts into a pounding industrial and minimalist polyrhythm). Inevitably, Tortoise ends up sounding like a clone of Ratlidge-era Soft Machine and of Matching Mole. The new element is represented by the catchy melodies, that occasionally mimic the easy-listening muzak and movie soundtracks of the 1960s (Prepare Your Coffin, Minors). There is also a lighter, humorous mood to revitalize their music, like in the Caribbean novelty Northern Something. Even the robotic grandeur of Gigantes is tempered by the Brazilian-like beginning and the languid new-age wails of the ending. The harder edges, notably in the fearsome hard-rocking Yinxianghechengqi, never rise to being more than occasional detours.

The four-song EP Why Waste Time (Thrill Jockey, 2010) was an exercise in ambient and glitch music.

Tortoise returned after another long hiatus with the mediocre revisionist synth-pop of The Catastrophist (2016), containing the 1980s-style minimalist electronic music-box of Gesceap and the vintage disco-funk of Gopher Island. The album briefly stirs up with the jarring gamelan locomotive of Shake Hands With Danger, but then plunges again into senile lethargy.

Jeff Parker also launched a prolific solo career in the jazz world.

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