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Tortoise

Tortoise revolutionized American indie rock in the mid-'90s by playing down tried-and-true punk and rock & roll influences, emphasizing instead the incorporation of a variety of left-field music genres from the previous 20 years, including Krautrock, dub, avant-garde jazz, classical minimalism, ambient and space music, film music, and British electronica. At odds as well with the shambling framework of alternative rock's normal song structure, the group -- as large as a septet, with at times two vibes players -- relied on a crisp instrumental aesthetic, tied to cool jazz, which practically stood alone in American indie rock by actually focusing on instrumental prowess and group interaction. Although the group's unique vision is to an extent the creation of drummer and master producer John McEntire, most of the other members are well-connected -- producers and/or participants -- in Chicago's fraternal indie rock community, which consists of numerous side projects and ongoing bands. After debuting in 1993 with several singles and an LP, Tortoise's underground prestige emerged above terra firma with their second album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die; the 21-minute opening track "Djed" was a sublime pastiche of Krautrock, dub, and cool jazz. Tortoise then linked themselves with the cream of European electronica (Luke Vibert, Oval, U.N.K.L.E., Spring Heel Jack) to remix the album on a series of 12" singles. Despite the band's growing reliance on studio engineering, Tortoise began re-emphasizing their instrumentalist bent in 1998 for their third album, TNT.

First formed in Chicago in 1990, Tortoise began when Doug McCombs (bass; formerly of Eleventh Dream Day) and John Herndon (drums, keyboards, vibes; formerly with the Poster Children) began experimenting with production techniques. The duo intended to record on their own as well as provide an instant rhythm section for needy bands -- inspired by the reggae duo Sly & Robbie. Next aboard was producer/drummer/vibes player John McEntire and guitarist Bundy K. Brown (both former members of Bastro) plus percussionist Dan Bitney (formerly with the SST hardcore band Tar Babies).

The five-piece recorded 7" singles for both David Wm. Sims' Torsion label and Thrill Jockey in 1993, then released their eponymous debut on Thrill Jockey one year later. Much of the album's sound -- restrained indie rock with sublime jazz influences and a debt to prog rock -- was pleasant but not quite revolutionary. Several tracks took a more slanted course, though, sounding like a reaction to England's ambient/techno scene filtered through the '70s experimentalism of Can and Faust. Tortoise became an underground classic and spawned the remix work Rhythms, Resolutions and Clusters featuring remixers Jim O'Rourke, Steve Albini, and Brad Wood; the album steadily segued from techno and found-sound environment recordings to feedback ambience and hip-hop, complete with samples of A Tribe Called Quest and Minnie Riperton. In 1995, the group released Gamera, a 12" single on Stereolab's Duophonic label.

Brown later left for solo production work and his band projects Slowpoke and Directions in Music; Tortoise added bassist David Pajo (formerly of Slint and also a member of the For Carnation) for second album Millions Now Living Will Never Die, released in early 1996. Much of the album was similar to the debut, but the British weeklies and American music magazines championed the strength of album-opener "Djed" -- which blended a rumbling bassline, scratchy lo-fi ambience, and dub techniques into over ten minutes of music before the sounds of reel-to-reel tape disintegration introduced another passage of calm yet angular indie rock figures. During the rest of 1995, Tortoise toured with Stereolab in England and headlined a U.S. tour with 5iveStyle and the Sea and Cake. John McEntire also remained busy with production, working on Stereolab's Emperor Tomato Ketchup and eponymous debut LPs from 5iveStyle, Trans Am, and Rome.

Instead of a remix album to accompany Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Tortoise optioned tracks out to several techno/experimental contemporaries during 1996. Mo' Wax heroes U.N.K.L.E. recorded a remix of "Djed" on the first of what became a four-volume series, with later interpretations coming from Oval, Jim O'Rourke and Bedouin Ascent, Spring Heel Jack, and Luke Vibert, among others.

By the time recording began in 1998 for Tortoise's third album, TNT, Pajo had gone to spend time on his Aerial-M project; a longtime group friend, guitarist Jeff Parker, replaced him. Parker's connection to the fertile Chicago free jazz community -- he's a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) -- served as a signpost to the group's new direction: growing instrumental prowess and an emphasis on straight-ahead, occasionally improvisational indie rock. Tortoise's fourth album, Standards, released in early 2001, maintained that direction, only leavened by many post-recording tweakings at the band's Soma Studios. Another three-year gap separated Standards from 2004's It's All Around You. The bandmembers then took a break, of sorts, concentrating on their raft of side projects -- Exploding Star Orchestra, Bumps, Fflashlights, Powerhouse Sound -- and producing only a collaborative Tortoise LP with Bonnie "Prince" Billy, The Brave and the Bold. (They also assembled a box set titled A Lazarus Taxon.)

The group's sixth proper LP, Beacons of Ancestorship, finally arrived in 2009. The following year, the Japanese release Why Waste Time? appeared, featuring the previously unreleased songs "Ruba'iyat" and "Passerine." The band also composed the score to Lovely Molly, a film by The Blair Witch Project director Eduardo Sánchez that debuted at 2011's Toronto International Film Festival. Tortoise's seventh full-length, The Catastrophist, built on music that they were commissioned to write in 2010 by the City of Chicago to commemorate the area's jazz and improvised music scenes. Featuring vocals from U.S. Maple/Dead Rider's Todd Rittman and Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley, the album arrived in January 2016. ~ John Bush
full bio

Selected Discography

x

Track List: A Lazarus Taxon

Disc 1

1. Gamera

2. The Source Of Uncertainty

3. Blackbird

4. Sexual For Elizabeth

6. Whitewater

7. Didjeridoo

8. Autumn Sweater

9. Wait

10. A Grape Dope

11. Restless Waters

12. Vaus

13. Blue Station

Disc 2

1. Madison Area

3. Why We Fight

5. Peering

6. Goriri

7. As You Said

8. CTA

9. Deltitnu

11. Cliff Dweller Society

12. Waihopai

Disc 3

1. Alcohall

2. Your New Rod

3. Cobwebbed

4. The Match Incident

5. Tin Cans Puerto Rican Remix

6. Not Quite East Of The Ryan

7. Initial Gesture Protraction

8. Cornpone Brunch Watt Remix

Disc 4
x

Track List: TNT

1. TNT

2. Swing From The Gutters

3. Ten-Day Interval

4. I Set My Face To The Hillside

5. The Equator

6. A Simple Way To Go Faster Than Light That Does Not Work

7. The Suspension Bridge At Iguazu Falls

8. Four-Day Interval

9. In Sarah, Mencken, Christ And Beethoven There Were Women And Men

10. Almost Always Is Nearly Enough

11. Jetty

12. Everglade

x

Track List: Millions Now Living Will Never Die

1. Djed

2. Glass Museum

3. A Survey

4. The Taut And Tame

5. Dear Grandma And Grandpa

6. Along The Banks Of Rivers

x

Track List: Tortoise

1. Magnet Pulls Through

2. Night Air

3. Ry Cooder

4. Onions Wrapped In Rubber

5. Tin Cans & Twine

6. Spiderwebbed

7. His Second Story Island

8. On Nobel

9. Flyrod

10. Cornpone Brunch

x

Track List: Beacons Of Ancestorship

1. High Class Slim Came Floatin' In

2. Prepare Your Coffin

3. Northern Something

4. Gigantes

5. Penumbra

6. Yinxianghechengqi

7. Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One

8. Minors

9. Monument Six One Thousand

10. De Chelly

11. Charteroak Foundation

x

Track List: It's All Around You

1. It's All Around You

2. The Lithium Shifts

3. Crest

4. Stretch (You Are All Right)

5. The Unknown

6. Dot / Eyes

7. On The Chin

8. By Dawn

9. Five Too Many

10. Salt The Skies

x

Track List: Standards

1. Seneca

2. Eros

3. Benway

4. Firefly

5. Sixpack

6. Eden 2

7. Monica

8. Blackjack

9. Eden 1

10. Speakeasy

x

Track List: The Catastrophist (Bonus Track Edition)

1. The Catastrophist

2. Ox Duke

3. Rock On

4. Gopher Island

5. Shake Hands With Danger

6. The Clearing Fills

7. Gesceap

8. Hot Coffee

9. Yonder Blue

10. Tesseract

11. At Odds With Logic

12. The Mystery Won't Reveal Itself (To You)

Comments

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Year 2015 corre tion major A
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Is 15 now
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The breakaway pace and use of xylophone makes me immediately think of Zappa. Could he have been an influence?
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Cool band, never heard of them before. Intriguing sound & instrumentat i o n .
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Tortoise f**king changed my life to the end of the 20th century. Love them without reservation!
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Whot late '40s hipsters could have played with good acid.... maybe did with fine hash.
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Wishing wannaF. There the first cuttage
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Sh-t yeah! Their most recent album is sick!
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Somebody gave me the first album awhile ago. LOVE IT! Gonna have to make an effort to get the rest soon...
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I just found them recently and now I'm fascinated with them. Awesome music for everything.
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Great music by great band
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Their music goes great with a stupid UPS commercial or CDW, something regarding ''Logistics' '
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Different imagery for an exploding brain... perfect in every way.
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waleski69 says: is EXACTLY how they make me feel...
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My love affair with this band continues. They are a form of perfection to me. Like a sunrise over a mountain top...
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Nice one Grendl,proba b l y
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you have it backwards.
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drinkthedrea m j u g
These guys make music like consciousnes s makes matter and energy
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These guys are simply amazing
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dtaylor15154
Check out the band Do Make Say Think.
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euphoric almost. incredible sound very original.
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tortoise promulgates a painterly
pastiche of pleasing pallettes
of sound,probab l y
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Tortoise are post-rock Beatles.
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bromide01
That last comment could probably be the best loadacrapfus i o n of our time.
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Very well could be the best electronicfu s i o n band of our time!
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dalastar
Fantastic use of guitar as an artistic instrument. Like painting with sound.

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