Tortoise transcends post-rock excesses

One characteristic of music in the '90s has been the coining of functional but banal terms for emerging music forms: grunge, electronica and now "post-rock." Bands tagged with the post-rock label are generally indie-label acts that draw on progressive rock from the past to expand rock's rather restrictive musical boundaries with a punk edge and without the indulgent excesses of their '70s "prog-rock" forebearers.

Chicago-based instrumental-band Tortoise is usually the first name dropped when post-rock is the topic of conversation. By weaving jazz-fusion a la "Bitches Brew"-era Miles Davis with electronic music and an indie-rock aesthetic, ortoise's direction is as eclectic as it is challenging.

A cursory listen to "TNT" -- Tortoise's latest release on Thrill Jockey records -- uncovers jazzy atmospheres, guitar-driven space-rock, acoustic textures and layers of drum & bass rhythms. While not a straight-ahead rock experience, it does provide a portal into a futuristic musical galaxy.

Tortoise's excursions into that galaxy led to lengthy recording sessions for their latest outing. Taking 10 months to record "TNT" wasn't the band's original intention. Bassist Doug McCombs (who pulls double-duty with Eleventh Dream Day) says it was the use of the recording/editing program ProTools which led to a more methodical and ultimately time-consuming approach. "We didn't really record any performances per se," he says. "If somebody had an idea -- if it was a melodic idea, a sequence or an idea for a drum pattern or just a cluster of chords -- we would just sort of put that down on tape and then just start working on it, adding things," says McCombs.

Transferring the studio approach into a live setting has been a challenge for the band due to their heavy utilization of multitrack recording. They had to decide which parts were important and which could be played simultaneously by one person, but so far have been successful at it on their current tour. Now the band awaits the inevitable progressive-rock backlash.

"I think we have a good enough sense of humor about ourselves that I don't think there is any danger of us lapsing into pomposity," says McCombs. "We don't really have this ELP `Emerson, Lake and Palmer` attitude."


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