Shell Game

Tortoise's sonic collage summons the ghost of prog rock past

Ask John Herndon of Tortoise to list the three albums that best represent his band's apparent progressive-rock mindset and you might be surprised at what he answers.

Or, rather, what he doesn't.
Herndon won't mention Can's Tago Mago, even though Tortoise often plays the same kind of jazzy, repetitive riffs found on that 1971 LP. He doesn't call up Faust's best album, Faust So Far, a 1972 LP that features Tortoiselike noise experiments and bass-heavy jams. And Herndon doesn't align himself or his Chicago-based band with any of those old German krautrock acts, even though most fans and critics see Tortoise as a return to those highbrow, futuristic sounds of yesterday.

"My three essential albums?" Herndon says, his voice rising as he speaks from a motel phone in Montana. "First, it would be Herbie Hancock's Sextant. Total outer space funk, the most incredible record of the early '70s, way weirder than Headhunters. Then, Curtis Mayfield's There's No Place Like America Today, one of the saddest records ever written in showing how fucked up America is in terms of racism and sexism. And third, Prince Far I's Cry Tuff Dub Encounters Chapter 3. It's the total bass bomb, one of the tuffest dub records of all time."

Herndon also includes Miles Davis, the Wu-Tang Clan and DJ Zinc on his list of like-minded souls. But no Faust. No Can. And no apologies.

"I don't really listen to that stuff," he says of old-style progressive rock. "That's just what people expect us to be influenced by. I heard some Can stuff a few years ago when I was traveling with my old band. The guitar player had a cassette and he played it all the time. I went out and bought one of their CDs, but I didn't like it. I sold it back."

Herndon's protests notwithstanding, the echoes of egghead prog rock rumble through Tortoise's Millions Now Living Will Never Die, a disc of scattershot brilliance and one of the more critically fussed-over albums of the year. The perpetually picky London press, for example, went nuts over the disc during the band's recent U.K. tour with Stereolab. Tortoise is now making its way through the States on a bill with 5ive Style and the Sea and Cake, like-minded experimental bands with Tortoise members in their lineups.

Tortoise evolved out of a mutual admiration society of Chicago-area experimental rock musicians about three years ago. Herndon says initial response to the band was generally positive on its home turf. "There's a small but supportive experimental-music scene in Chicago, and people are able to push the envelope of music there. That helped when we first got together, because we all wanted to play a style of music that was different from what we were involved with at the time, which was guitar rock. We wanted to see where we could go musically."

For Herndon, that meant a long way from the spunky alternative rock of his former band, Poster Children. The same goes for the other members of Tortoise and their respective pedigrees--John McEntire (Bastro), Doug McCombs (Eleventh Dream Day), Dan Bitney (Tar Babies) and Dave Pajo (Slint). The Midwestern muscle of those guitar-based bands is nowhere to be found in Tortoise. Instead, the group embraces a melange of sounds and textures that floats just slightly above sea level, a muse shaped to accommodate jarring percussive attacks and soothing keyboard chord progressions.

Tortoise first put its efforts on disc in 1993 with a solid, self-titled release. The band followed that up with Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters, an album of the same songs remixed--sometimes radically so--by several producers, including noted noise guru Steve Albini and avant-guitarist Jim O'Rourke.

"There's no definitive version of a song," Herndon says of the remix project. "They're all subject to change." So is the band's stage instrumentation. Live, each Tortoise member plays a variety of instruments that changes from performance to performance. Herndon, for example, plays drums, vibraphone and keyboards. McEntire plays the same instruments plus the marimba. McCombs and Pajo concentrate on guitars, while Bitney plays just about everything he can put his hands on. Everyone plays bass and no one sings.

Sharing instruments onstage makes for musical chairs between songs, but the sonic effect is one of familiar tracks from Millions . . . made new. Quite a trick, considering the maze of moods on that recording. The opening cut, "Djed," is a 20-minute piece cut into several sections held together by a steady heartbeat bass. "Djed" includes spiked electronic squeaks, minimalist rock-steady workouts and casual splashes of keyboards. The track is also permeated by austere percussive assaults, including a startling interruption that sounds like a CD player on the fritz. The other songs on Millions . . . are shorter in length, but no less ambitious, especially the tuneful rolls and tumbles of "Glass Museum," and the ambient neurosis of "Dear Grandma and Grandpa," a song that would have fit nicely on an old Throbbing Gristle album.

"The idea behind this group," says Herndon, "is that nothing's permanent."
Tortoise is scheduled to perform on Friday, May 31, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with the Sea and Cake, and 5ive Style. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).

 
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