A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Chicago’s Tortoise elevated an at-capacity crowd with their minimalist post-everything rock ‘n roll for the second night of the Soul’d Out Music Festival.
The mortise and tenon joint has been used for thousands of years by woodworkers around the world to join pieces of wood, mainly when the adjoining pieces connect at an angle of 90°. In its basic form it is both simple and strong. – wikipedia.com
The basic form and parts of the mortise-and-tenon joint haven’t changed much in the last 7000 years; you can see examples of the functionally proficient tonge-and-groove design in the Great Pyramid of Giza, as well as in ancient Chinese architecture, neolithic water wells, even Stonehenge is constructed using mortise-and-tenon joints.
Why has this design been so enduring? Because it WORKS – it’s strong, simple, elegant, and easy to construct.
Imagine if a mortise-and-tenon joint were comprised of hundreds of tiny, intricate moving parts – like somehow molecularly bonding spiralling nebulae to one another, or managing to daisy chain whorling whirlpools to harness their centrifugal force. This is what it might sound like to listen to Tortoise, especially for the uninitiated.
Beginning in the early ‘90s, as part of Chicago’s emerging art rock scene, Tortoise (originally called Mosquito) plied a unique brand of instrumental rock, bringing in elements of dub, bossa nova, samba, experimental electronica, film soundtracks, and minimalism to help propagate what would come to be known, and then overlooked, as ‘post-rock’. They were part of a larger movement, with emigres from all over the Midwest – particularly Louisville, KY – moving to The City With Broad Shoulders in pursuit of cheap rent, plentiful beer, and an active music scene, that would fully come unto its own in the late ‘90s. Before that, rarely would these disparate elements meet. If you were living and buying records in the ‘90s, you’d likely never had heard anything like it.
And yet, for all of the philosophizing and theorizing about Tortoise and the particular flavor of Chicago Post-Rock, centered around the label Thrill Jockey – to Tortoise and their friends, it was simply ‘rock music’, as mentioned by multi-instrumentalist in an interview for Fact Magazine, speaking on their 2009 album Beacons Of Ancestorship:
“I mean, it’s not uncommon for there to be, like, drums, bass, synth, guitar,” he points out. “Especially, on the last record [2009’s Beacons of Ancestorship], it’s not like it’s vibraphone, marimba, synthesizer, drum machine. So in general terms, we did kind of become a rock band – I use it loosely because I think we’re weirdos for rock.”
Basically, Tortoise never set out to reinvent rock ‘n roll – they just had a much broader definition of what rock ‘n roll IS and DOES. Like the mortise-and-tenon joint, Tortoise exemplify both a clean, sharp minimalist detailing of what can be done within the template of rock music – basically, bass, guitar, drums, and now, synth:
As well as what can be done WITH it, transforming the shapes, sounds, and textures into bright, bold, futuristic new designs.
As with much of what would come to be typified under the umbrella term ‘post-rock’, Tortoise’s trajectory has not always been an easy one. Like many/most bands, especially long-standing legacy acts, Tortoise has had an uneasy peace with the cyborg-ization of modern music, with some of their earlier, more synth-heavy affairs, like the often-overlooked It’s All Around You from 2004 or even 2009’s Beacons Of Ancestorship, mentioned above, with the technological/organic hybridization coming off as slightly forced or brittle – the sonic equivalent of B+ CGI. It’s not to their fault, however – everywhere, artists were learning to get along with their machines, to use technology to DRIVE their stories and tell new ones. The difference can be heard with last year’s The Catastrophist. It’s not necessarily that it’s cleaner and more fluid than those other records – which it is, in certain respects – but more like Tortoise didn’t give as much of a shit. They’re here to do their thing – listen or don’t.
The difference was widely evident at an at-capacity show at the historic psychedelic ballroom McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom during Portland’s favorite holiday, 4.20, with the band tearing through a set of both classics as well as newer material. Taken together, Tortoise’s charms were highly in evidence – the powerful polyrhthmic engine of sometimes dual drummers John McEntire and John Herndon; the understated, class-act jazz guitar of Jeff Parker; the warm swells of Doug McCombs bass; along with a swathe of glowing analog synths and Tortoise’s signature minimalist mallet instruments.
It seems the times have caught up with Tortoise, as well, with people falling all over themselves for synths and beats, especially when they’re part of an excellent live band. And Tortoise are most definitely that! Rather than sounding like humans trying to emulate machines, Tortoise’s 4.20 show suggests machines have quite a bit of catching up to do, to get anywhere close to 30 years of experience and the insanely intricate machinations of Tortoise’s polyrhythms, coming from McEntire and Herndon. Tortoise sounded as fluid as honeyed Hokusai, pulling out treats and treasures from the first three classic albums – Tortoise, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, and TNT – most notably, “I Turn My Face To The Hillside” and “Glass Museum”, both of which were rapturously received by the ecstatic audience.
I’ve been seeing Tortoise live for roughly 2 decades, starting with small club shows in Chicago around the turn of the millenium, and while I’ve seen this band absolutely decimate and destroy crowds both large and small, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them both as tight and as relaxed, or the audience so PACKED. It had something to do, no doubt, with being part of a high-profile festival bill, but it also goes to show that the times are right for a wider swathe of underground music fans to fall under Tortoise’s hypnotic, rhythmic spell.
The evening culminated with a performance by instrumental hip-hop producer/DJ RJD2, who pulled out every trick in the modern EDM arsenal over the span of about 1.5, sprinting back and forth between FOUR TURNTABLES (!!!) – at least two of which seemed to be running Serato/Traktor – samplers, mixers, and synth, for a truly compelling, interesting mixture of DJing and live electronic music. As someone who’s been getting more and more into DJing, with each passing day, RJD2’s set dropped knowledge, especially if yr looking for ways to mix old skool crate digging/break mangling with more modern styles like footwork/grime/cumbia/trap. I don’t think there was a style of electronic music RJD2 didn’t turn over, scratch, remix, dub and demolish, over the course of his set. The audience were feeling it – the entire room was a writhing, swaying mass of euphoric upturned faces, beatific in vermillion and turquoise stage lights. Ravers and beer drinkers alike got together and got down, with nary a bad attitude in sight.
Tortoise and RJD2 at the Crystal Ballroom are an example of excellent music festival programming, on the part of the Soul’d Out Music Festival. Unlikely musical pairings brought together different walks of life to get down in peace and harmony, forming a new understanding, new bonds, new friendships, much like the music of both RJD2 and Tortoise. Boundaries are blurred, lines are crossed, rules are ignored in favor of this grand collective wave we are all surfing. THE FUTURE IS NOW, even if the past is still biting at our heels.
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Tune into every Sunday night/Monday morning for Morningstar: The Light In The Darkness @ Freeform Portland! Exploring the dark side of techno, hip-hop, shoegaze, metal, psych, folk, and soundtrack. You can listen to the archives online at mixcloud.com/for3stpunk.