Monday, August 31, 2009

August 31: Tortoise, "Tortoise"

Artist: Tortoise
Album: Tortoise
Year: 1994
Label: Thrill Jockey

When a band plays music that is simply impossible to define, or even relate to a single genre, a majority of the time, the music in question becomes a landmark sound and a major cog in the progression of music. Similarly, many of these same bands are so avant, so ahead of their time, that their music becomes lost among a majority of the general public, and they achieve comparatively little commercial success. Case in point, somewhere in the space between Primus, Sun Ra, and Black Sabbath, you will find one of the most original and completely genius bands in the history of music, Tortoise. A brilliantly unique combination of moody, jazzy instrumentals with a heavy, dark shadow over each song, Tortoise were true innovators in every sense of the word, and they are seen as one of the integral bands in the formation of what is now called the "post rock" movement. With a lineup that has changed greatly over the past twenty years, members of Tortoise have gone on to form bands like Gastr del Sol and The Sea And Cake among others. Even with the various changes in personnel, the spirit behind the music has stayed consistent, and each album that the group has released is a truly brilliant musical accomplishment. However, it is Tortoise's first lineup and debut album, 1994's Tortoise that stands as their finest musical achievement and easily one of the most amazing albums ever recorded. The songs are completed by various sound effects, keyboards, accordions, and a range of other traditional and non-traditional instruments which combine to make the music on Tortoise like nothing else ever recorded.

By the time Tortoise was released in late 1994, the popular music of the time was filled with moods and lyrics that were either overly aggressive of celebrating more questionable, urban lifestyles. With the music of Tortoise, one would truly be hard pressed to find a sound that was further from these moods and themes. However, the progressive, innovative nature with which the group approached their music quickly gained them an underground following which remains to this day. The key to this is clearly the fact that each of the five musicians found on Tortoise trust one another, and they give each other the support to fully explore the musical themes which are found on the album. This complete exploration is one of the keys to the overall impact of the songs, and the smallest nuances and most subtle moments are often the pieces that make the album so compelling. The myriad of instruments and sounds found on Tortoise are perfectly spaced and mixed, and this is largely due to the flawless production work, which was handled entirely by the band, though mostly attributed to drummer John McEntire. Their unique, unorthodox instrumentation gives their songs an atmosphere unlike any other, and the level of musicianship found in the band easily rivals any of their contemporaries.

As the album is completely devoid of lyrical content, the entire genius of the songs comes solely from the unique manner in which the band members approach their instruments. Each of the five band members on Tortoise play a wide variety of instruments, and this further enables the band to create sounds like no other group in history. With a heavy emphasis on heavy, thumping basslines, the group also manages to find a deep groove on every track via the fantastic bass playing. The drumming throughout Tortoise is equally as impressive, as the beats seem to almost bounce off of the album on many of the songs. Whether it is the distorted, echoey sounds on "Onions Wrapped In Butter" or the far more standard drum down found elsewhere on the album, this is a group that is clearly as concerned with how the drums sound as much as they are with the drums' place within the overall musical picture they are creating. Furthering their musical uniqueness, the group often uses vibraphones, and on a few tracks, they even double up on the instrument, creating a sound and mood that is nothing short of stunning. The sensational way in which Tortoise incorporates the vibraphones into their dark, rock groove is no more perfect than one will find on the meandering mega-composition, "Ry Cooder." from synthesizers to heavily distorted sound effects, the group uses a wide variety of instrumentation of create their amazing sonic textures, and the manner in which they shift the instruments around in the mix throughout the songs makes the moods throughout Tortoise truly like nothing else ever recorded.

At their core, Tortoise is a band that is all about creating stunning musical moods and atmospheres. While there are a few brighter numbers at the end of the album, a majority of the songs have a dark, somewhat gloomy mood that is often reminiscent of groups like Joy Division. Many of the songs have very spacey, open textures, and this is where the band pushes into new territory for a rock-centered band. This approach to their music clearly influenced many bands, the most obvious of which would be Explosions In The Sky. The key to these mesmerizing moods is far and away the amazing bass playing on every track, and there are many moments where the basswork is nothing short of menacing and sinister in nature. The way in which the simple, yet rich rhythms create these unparalleled moods is perhaps no more clear than on the song, "Onions Wrapped In Butter," as aside from light keyboard sounds and loops, they are the only instruments present. One of the greatest moments on Tortoise comes in the form of the eight and a half minute composition, "Spiderwebbed." On the track, the band leaves no stone unturned, and the moods found therein cross the entire spectrum, from a grim atmosphere to a more hopeful, almost ethereal mood and then eventually fading off as a relaxed, almost jazzy feel. It is this ability to perform brilliantly across the musical and mood spectrum that makes experiencing the music of Tortoise so fascinating and enjoyable.

Composing and recording completely instrumental music that isn't jazz-based is easily one of the most difficult tasks a group can attempt. Truly braving uncharted territory, Chicago-based progressive rockers, Tortoise, succeed magnificently in this quest, and their undeniably unique sound and mood remains largely unequaled to this day. Having little use for lyrics, the group conveys all of the meaning and emotion necessary through superb musicianship and careful attention to the atmospheres that are created within each of their compositions. With five musicians, each playing a variety of instruments, both the moods as well as the music itself is like nothing else before it, and truth be told, few of their followers have even come close to their amazing sound. From the almost sci-fi feel of "Flyrod" to the grooving, dark tenor of "Magnet Pulls Through" to the strangely modern, uplifting "Cornpone Brunch," Tortoise is truly brilliant in every style they approach. As has been stated before, the early 1990's was a fantastic point of musical exploration in all directions, yet many of the non-rock based sounds and styles fell largely by the wayside, and there was little market for a group that had no need for lyrics in their music. Regardless of these trends, Tortoise were clearly committed to making their own, amazingly unique brand of music, and their 1994 self-titled debut album is just as magnificent and original today as it was when it was originally released.

Standout tracks: "Magnet Pulls Through," "Ry Cooder," and "Cornpone Brunch."

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