Who Stole the I Walkman?
Tortoise are the undisputed leaders of a new movement in modern
music, dubbed "post-rock" by journalists and "math-rock" by fans
and detractors alike (depending on how well they did in undergraduate
calculus courses, I presume). Theoretically, post-rock is a reaction
against all rock music that came before, a bold assault against
three-chord anthems, heavy-metal guitar solos and lung-bursting
vocal histrionics. Or more to the point: "No big hair!"
But Tortoise have never claimed to be anything more than a rock
band. To position them as post-anything is to flatly ignore the
influence of a great many musicians who have clearly shaped their
sound, from jazzbos John McLaughlin and Miles Davis to minimalist
composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. And if Tortoise's albums
define a new school of musical thought, then it is an impossibly
amorphous and fluid one, as no two Tortoise LPs sound alike.
When Tortoise emerged from the Chicago scene's primordial soup
in 1993, it was a
bass-and-drums studio project concocted by Johnny Herndon (drums)
and Doug McCombs (bass). Their idea, to abandon guitars and create
a form of music based solely on the propulsion of rhythm, was boldly
reductionist, but not without precedent. Heavily influenced by the
dual rhythm juggernauts of Chicago's Shellac and Louisville's Slint,
Tortoise's self-titled debut LP innovatively mixed percussive thrust
and droning keyboard textures. Based on this work alone, the idea
of post-rock was born: Rock 'n' roll's typical conventions (Chuck
Berry's double-stopped guitar leads plus R&B's insinuating vocals)
had been stripped away to reveal the barest bones of the music. But
even as the post-rock label was being affixed to their shell, Tortoise
were beginning to evolve into a larger, more complicated organism.
Tortoise have high Standards.
Shortly before recording their 1994 debut, Herndon and McCombs
sought out musical assistance from local musicians John McEntire
and Bundy Brown. McEntire's arrival marks a crucial juncture in
the development of the band. Having studied computers and music
technology in college, McEntire helped the group realize its "studio
band" aspirations. With McEntire manning the boards, Tortoise's
raw rhythms were transformed into something infinitely more complex:
cavernous, dub-influenced layers of bass and drums that create alternating
waves of tension and release, moving in tidal patterns across the
The 1996 LP Millions Now Living Will Never Die was a radical
departure, in which the group fulfilled the promise of its name.
"Djed," the album's epic opener, unfolds at a glacial pace, beginning
with ripples of static, evolving into a massive wave of minimalist
vibe melodies, and receding just as surely as it came, leaving traces
of foamy static on its sonic shores.
Having exhausted the slow-and-steady theory of composition, Tortoise
took another radical turn on TNT, released in 1998. Jeff
Parker, a Chicago jazz guitarist, joined the fold, and the band
composed the majority of the album's material in the studio, using
ProTools software to cut and paste improvised bits into a cohesive
whole. The result, born of an arduous, year-long recording process,
was an almost incomprehensibly dense record. Each sound and sonic
detail had been manipulated, edited and tweaked to perfection. TNT's
beauty is its infinite depth--unraveling over repeated listens,
the album reveals secrets with every spin. But the endless vista
that technology opened on TNT was also a perilous threat.
Critics assailed it as too studied and too intellectual, robbing
jazz of its spontaneous magic and reducing it to a rote musical
On Standards, Tortoise's new LP, the group appears to have
reinvented itself again. The irony of the album's title is obvious
from its first notes on "Seneca," as Parker's distorted, warbling
guitar feeds back with Hendrixian glee and Herndon bashes away at
the traps with reckless abandon. It's a cacophonous racket that
resolves itself with a sort of warped melodic logic, and the most
furious bit of music Tortoise have ever recorded. Two minutes in,
a complex Herndon beat locks the band in step and the trademark
Tortoise guitar sound (warbly and thick, like an underwater bell
tower striking high noon) appears, reassuring the listener that
the band is still alive and kicking beneath all the bombast.
There is uncharacteristic immediacy here, but it shouldn't be mistaken
for sloppiness or spontaneity. As much as Standards expands
Tortoise's sonic palette, it is ultimately a record of intricately
woven compositions. Take "Benway," the third track on Standards.
Beginning with a series of drum 'n' bass percussion clicks and the
most prominent synthesizer line in Tortoise's canon, the track's
brooding vibe suddenly resolves into a TNT-like bit of repetitive
riffage. Vibes and guitar lock into a minimalist major key motif
that turns itself around into a jazzy bit of discordant skronk.
In less than five minutes, Tortoise successfully synthesize the
last two decades of experimental and improvisational music; and
it's not nearly as intellectual as that sounds. This is mind music
that moves the booty as well.
"Monica" marks Tortoise's return to confounding mode, as the group
exchanges its underwater warble for something resembling French
house music. As the disco ball drops and diamonds of light glimmer
and spin, a vocoder gurgles over New Age synth swells. But once
again, Tortoise seamlessly change directions, from disco to electro-jazz,
with time left for brief excursions into trip-hop and horn-infected
Standards is a deceptive animal. Some listeners will hear
the violent guitar stabs that open the album and declare that Tortoise
have launched a punk-rock assault against their critics, but beneath
the newly painted shell resides the same thoughtful, patient beast
that reinvented rock music. While TNT was dense, diverse
and mysterious, Standards is forceful and cohesive. Over the course
of the album's 10 tracks, Tortoise merge disparate elements like
flamenco guitar, hand claps, analog synth burbles and backward tape
loops into a seamless, harmonious whole.
For a more radical revision of post-rock's sound, listeners should
tune into Isotope 217. Major players in Chicago's free-jazz, post-rock
scene for the past four years, Isotope 217's revolving lineup has
recently become almost identical to Tortoise itself. Herndon, Parker
and (Tortoise percussionist) Dan Bitney are all members, and McEntire
runs the boards, but the distinct presence of cornet player Rob
Mazurek prevents the two bands from becoming sonic Siamese twins.
Isotope's 1997 debut album, The Unstable Molecule, was a
melting pot of electric Miles and U.K. downbeat trip-hop stylings.
Cornet and trombone added a jazzy, speakeasy feel lacking on Tortoise's
early work, and the group's occasional ventures into the realm of
funk (check the Bootsy Collins-inspired bass work on "Phonometrics")
further distinguished the group from its Chicago brethren.
Their latest disc, Who Stole the I Walkman?, could hardly
be further from their roots. With the departure of trombonist Sara
P. Smith after Molecule, Isotope's horn-heavy sound has been
slowly replaced by sound effects, samples and studio manipulation.
Thanks in large part to Mazurek abandoning his cornet for his laptop,
Isotope's sound has become more synthesized and alien, floating
across Kubrickian space vistas like an extraterrestrial transmission.
Where horns once swooped and swooned, unidentifiable radar blips
cavort, and the jazzy rim shots and brushed snares of Molecule
and 1999's Utonian Automatic have been replaced with percussive
clicks and skittering drum 'n' bass patterns. Moreover, the compositional
structure of previous efforts has been done away with altogether.
Ideas stack upon one another as grooves appear and disappear with
"Meta Bass" mixes a traditional guitar and synth combo with a cumulus
six-string attack, only to unexpectedly morph into a funky bass
trance. "Moonlex" could be an alternate soundtrack to any one of
a thousand different sci-fi docking sequences. Droning sub-frequencies,
bleeping consoles, whirring machinery and oscillating hums conjure
up crater-covered lunar landscapes.
The album's space-age kitchen sink approach is often more distracting
than interesting, however. Walkman seems to resist repetition
at all costs, leaving the listener to dangle while the good grooves
pass on by. One of the few tunes to sustain a musical idea for an
extended period is "Moot Ang," which also happens to be the most
fusion-inflected track. As a 12-note guitar figure plods deliberately
along, tribal percussion and moody horns build to a fever pitch
until exploding like an angry hive of cyborg bees. It's a beautiful
moment of barely controlled chaos and an all-too-infrequent revelation.
But even Walkman's most awkward stabs at innovation are
a welcome respite from the stagnant pop that rules the radio. Perhaps
this is why Isotope 217, Tortoise (and their labelmates in the Sea
and Cake, Brokeback and Trans Am) are perpetually set apart by music
critics. For all their sonic disparity, these groups share two crucial
features--the belief that rock 'n' roll remains a vital musical
form and the creativity to prove it.