Ten years ago, Chicago collective Tortoise released their first
self-titled record, which incorporated electronic sounds and
textures with traditional rock instrumentation. They fascinatingly
took the hard edge off rock music, replacing it instead with a
cerebral ambience more associated with dub and modern jazz. With
its release, they efficiently pioneered a new musical genre called
post-rock.

In 1996, Tortoise continued their sonic exploration with their
album Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The record
included the 21-minute opener “Djed,” a song that
successfully merged subdued indie rock with mellow electronica.
While other bands were also experimenting with diverse sounds at
the time, Tortoise’s work is undoubtedly unique and
rewarding. Each second of music offers something interesting and
each note is impeccably manipulated by inventive instrumentation
and mastery of the studio.

Despite achieving critical and modest popular success early in
their career, Tortoise have worked slowly and meticulously before
releasing any more music. Their live shows have been few and far
between. Anticipation has been building for years for the tour in
support of their new Thrill Jockey release It’s All Around
You. Their first show is tonight in Detroit.

It’s All Around You is a dreamy album, but
multi-instrumentalist John Herndon said the band didn’t
necessarily intend for it to feel that way. “There was no
preconceived notion going into it. We don’t really talk about
what kind of direction the music is going to go. It just sort of
happens intuitively.” Tortoise’s collective intuition
is undoubtedly informed by the various other musical projects the
band members are involved in. John McEntire — one of three
percussionists in Tortoise, joining Herndon and Dan Bitney —
is also a founding member of the art-pop band The Sea and Cake and
guitarist Jeff Parker has been working on solo avant-garde jazz
records. Even Herndon himself has been working on his own under the
name A Grape Dope.

Once in the studio, each band member can bring forward the ideas
that they’ve had for Tortoise while working on other
projects. Herndon explained Tortoise’s writing process, which
is usually done in the studio: “People would come in with
different ideas, little kernels of a tune, maybe just one riff. One
of the three of us will be drumming and that gives the others the
opportunity to experiment by picking up a guitar or a vibraphone or
a marimba. One of us might have one idea, and the music flows from
there.”

While It’s All Around You is a magnificently
subdued affair, Tortoise’s live show is a loud exercise in
rock-based experimentation. Even though Herndon said that Tortoise
do not openly improvise like a jam band, their intense live show is
certainly why Herndon has noticed “some dreadlocked hippie
dancers at the gigs. I think people have this idea that we’re
overly serious about what we do, but we bring humor as well. I
think we could rock a party.”

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