American Contraband: Alternative Rock and American Experimental Music

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The members of Tortoise are hardly typical candidates for the roles of saviors of indie rock in the ’90s, a role thrust upon them by the media, always hungry for something new. The bewilderingly rapid pace with which Tortoise lept from obscurity to a sort of quasi-celebrity within alternative rock circles should not obscure the fact that the Chicago-based group is making rock-based music that is bewitching, seductive, and genuinely innovative.

The band’s breakthrough came in 1996 with the release of the album Millions Now Living Will Never Die, which was easily the most talked-about indie rock record of the year. Tortoise had begun its life as a group of disaffected former indie rockers under the influence of the spacy drift of German Krautrock, Jamaican dub, and the kind of studio manipulation employed by Teo Macero on Miles Davis‘s seminal jazz fusion albums. On Millions, such studio manipulation played a significant role in the compositional process. The album’s leadoff track, “Djed,” clocked in at a whopping 20:53, but bears no relationship to the sprawling progressive rock epics of the ’70s. Nor is it a suitelike conglomeration of short sections, instead evolving organically from a low steady bass groove to an insistent pulse reminiscent of the music of German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. The repetitive beat, paired with sudden subtle changes of instrumentation and balance, bore witness to the influence of Steve Reich, as did the corruscating rhythms played on mallet percussion instruments. Throughout the length of the piece, “Djed” maintains a sense of forward progression through addition and subtraction of instrumental voices as well as by manipulation of dynamics and balances via the studio console.

Revealing a growing affinity with the new forms of electronica bubbling out of Detroit, New York, London and Tokyo, Tortoise commissioned and released a series of 12″ vinyl singles with remixes of the tracks from Millions as intrepreted by leading Djs and electronic artists including Derrick Carter, Autechre, and Markus Popp of Oval. Nor did the influence stop there: it found its way into the band’s ever-expanding palate on the 1998 release TNT, an album which found the band employing similar approach to composition as those on Millions, within more concise frameworks.

Already Tortoise is not operating in isolation. Its members and ex-members alone have released side projects under the names Isotope 217, Directions in Music, Aerial M and Brokeback. More importantly, there has been a wave of new bands exploring similar modes of collective instrumental expression all over the world, including Montreal’s Godspeed You Black Emperor and Scotland’s Mogwai, all now conveniently lumped under the label “post-rock,” neatly sidestepping that dreaded word “progressive.”

From American Contraband: Alternative Rock and American Experimental Music
By Jason Gross and Steve Smith
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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