If you have read some of my other reviews, then you may have noticed that I am a fan of artists making instrumental songs. One of my favorite things to be able to relax, not have anyone talk/scream/sing to you, and allow my thoughts to wander freely. Therefore, it may come as no surprise when I say that I am a fan of the post-rock (almost entirely instrumental) genre. Tortoise, my favorite post-rock act, are a band from Chicago and are often left out of post-rock discussions I have had despite the fact that they have been around since the early 90’s. What makes them unique is their indefinable style of music. I would mostly call them an experimental post-rock band, but there are also heavy jazz elements in all of their records, some characteristics progressive rock and hard rock, and some blues traits as well. I am a fan of other post-rock groups including Godspeed You…, This Will Destroy You, and Russian Circles; but I have always come back to Tortoise more often than these other groups because of their experimental style and moody atmospheres they are able to create. Tortoises’ self titled debut album is a great place to start if listeners are unfamiliar with the group. It is more experimental than their later jazzy, rock, and electronically influenced albums they have released, but it has quickly grown to become one of my favorite records in their discography.
Moody experimental rock is the style of music that I feel is best showcased on this album and can be seen on songs such as Night Air and Onions Wrapped In Rubber. Both songs play on different emotions and surprisingly are able to capture them without the use of any lyrics. Night Air begins with a slow guitar pick pattern while a depressing harmonica tune rolls over the guitar notes. This song epitomizes the feeling of depression as the song stumbles forward and a short muffled recorded sample of a man briefly plays. The ambiguous sample trials off after it states “I had a friend of mine…” giving it a mysterious and sad feel to it based on the musical style. Onions Wrapped In Rubber is the second mood piece I thought was worth mentioning. Onions… plays more on the feeling of paranoia and anxiety which is a step away from the sorrow of Night Air. Onions always made me feel like I was being followed by some unknown stranger through a wooded area outside based on a few key musical traits. The first being the use of small faint drum effects that are just audible beneath a swaying electronic noise (this is an extremely minimal track). These small drumming effects always vaguely reminded me of footsteps of someone trying to creep up on someone else (how soft they are). The drums are also responsible for the second half of my “stalker” theory about this song as well. At the very beginning of the song and during a part near the end, the drumming is louder and played in an off-time rhythm. Playing into the last theory of the faint drum effects being creeping footsteps, these loud fills would most likely be a heavy sprinting away from someone and foot chase. Onions is undoubtedly one of the most entertaining tracks for myself and does not drag at any point during its near seven minute run time.
Tortoise also set out to prove that they are not a one trick pony band on this album as well. On the song Spiderwebbed, the group shows off some prog rock guitar work as they continue to expand their sound. The song begins with an elaborate guitar pick pattern in some odd time signature which immediately intrigues listeners. This riff is followed subtly by a second guitar that calmly enters and plays a relaxing riff to contrast the odd one which opened the song. Eventually, the second riff and a steady drum beat overpower the original riff as the song marches onward while some other form of muted percussion is added along the way for good measure. Spiderwebbed is a dense track with a lot going on within it and is sometimes difficult to describe, but that is exactly what makes it fun to listen to. This light and upbeat prog rock tune is one of the major highlights off of this entire album and will likely please fans of this genre and the post-rock genre.
Tortoise also demonstrates that they are capable of making their own interesting blend of rock songs on this album often blending several rock influences together on one song. The album’s opening song, Magnet Pulls Through, starts off similar to a noise rock song with only a strange ringing and electronic drones present. Slowly the music shifts towards the main guitar riff which increases in volume from a faint echo to sounding like it is right next to the listener by the time it has run its course. A funk bass line is thrown into the mix every now and then as smooth drumming keep the song’s melody bound together. The song sounds close to falling apart melodically several times with all the different musical layers, but the end result is something beautiful. Another song, Ry Cooder, is more of a hard rock oriented song by the band’s standards. This song features a walking guitar line with a second twangy rhythm guitar coming in right behind it. This section of the song is again relaxing, but it broken up by a wave of drumming and loud rock guitar riffs about a minute into the song. The music then suddenly collapses almost into silence and the original walking guitar melody builds again. The melody repeats itself but the second time around, instead of bursting into a rock song, the music shifts towards a lighter and more danceable tone. A keyboard groove primarily drives the song forward with guitar the rest of its duration before everything finally fades out completely. Tortoise’s ability to keep listeners guessing as to which direction their songs will head next is one of the band’s strengths and is on full display during Ry Cooder.
By this point in the review, if Tortoise is beginning to sound like an interesting but weird group, it is because they are. Tortoise is primarily rooted in experimental post-rock but is also influenced by prog rock, blues, and electronics. Tortoise is not a band that will blow listeners away with their sheer heaviness and loudness or a band that will dominate the radio based on a few pop sensibilities; but they are something original and different which I think is the more important. Tortoise is an extremely underrated band that needs to be heard by more people and deserve more respect for their work. If post-rock intrigues you, I highly recommend this album or any of Tortoises other albums to you. Their debut album is a strong release and is tied with TNT as my favorite album by the group. Other strong albums of theirs include Standards and Millions Now Living Will Never Die, but it is up to listeners to select their own personal favorite by them. Go check this group out today! Hooray Tortoise!
Track listing: 1. Magnet Pulls Through, 2. Night Air, 3. Ry Cooder, 4. Onions Wrapped In Rubber, 5. Tin Cans & Twine, 6. Spiderwebbed, 7. His Second Story Island, 8. On The Noble, 9. Flyrod, 10. Cornpone Brunch
**Favorite Tracks are bolded**
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