No one really likes the pretentious posturing involved in the term post-rock. Though I’m sure a link could be forged somewhere along the line to post-modernism, why spoil the fun? As Professor Lowi said in class, “By naming anything ‘post-something,’ you acknowledge you don’t know enough about it to adequately categorize it.” Much to my chagrin, Tortoise has become the critic’s post-rock band par excellance. Just because the Chicago based band defies categorization, doesn’t mean we have to slap on a meaningless term to describe their sweeping compositions of densely-layered dual drummer rhythms, tight vibraphone cycles, and atmospheric guitar wanderings.
“TNT,” the first track off the album by the same name, presents Tortoise at its finest. The song begins with a barely audible drum loop, played by two drummers on different sets as their soft yet fast-paced hits interlock to form a rhythm that seems to stop and start at once. As the dual drum sets finally hit their cadence, a straight-toned guitar enters the fray with a single, unforgettable melodic hook that repeats until the end of the song.
The genius: Tortoise begin exactly how they end, but in the process, they take you somewhere entirely different. They build a poignant seven minute crescendo with little melodic variation, besides a spare chorus, bridge, and a slight refrain. The effect is dazzling. You effortlessly glide on a carpet of growing instrumentation — kraut-rock drums, soft, warm horns, ambient electronic effects, and angular guitar riffs — until the energy becomes so concentrated it simply disperses. It’s like it has been sublimated into a gas; it’s that ephemeral.
Watching this song performed live in all of its delicate beauty, the musical prowess of Tortoise becomes readily apparent. A list of their side projects proves the same point. But there can be no greater mark of success than defying the limits of sound.
Archived article by Andrew Gilman