Once, when grunge was still king, Steve Albini branded Tortoise more “jazz” and “prog” than punk, and insisted that was a compliment. But now that “post-rock” has been drained of meaning and bleeding-edge cachet, haters have hardened those descriptors into a roundhouse dis. Speed, emotion, volume—read: blurry guitars, screaming vocals, and jumping up and down—again signify the Hard Sweaty Real. Forget Cage or Reich. If you’ve got chops, or more than one actual idea, they think you’re Spyro Gyra or Henry Cow.
Perhaps Tortoise are jazz in their Miles-Teo chop-shop artifice, and prog in that they’ve never heard anything they didn’t like. By revering Afro-diasporic beat-science and refusing the tortured yelps that deliver Acme-anvil narrative punch, they slip past both “intelligent dance music” and good old dumb rock. But in all the words spilled about Tortoise, the most obvious never comes up: hip-hop, the original “post-rock.” “Jazz” and “prog” aren’t insults, just stacks of Cal Tjader, David Axelrod, and Mahavishnu Orchestra to upload. Name-drop all the obscure avant-gardists you like. Tortoise’s wide-eared universe-of-sound and many-nations-under-a- crossfader method are strictly hip-hop. For this band, experimentation trumps tradition and grooves say more than anthems.
In 1994, Tortoise’s brown-cardboard debut dumped guitars and vocals, and their low-end theory tapped the boom-bap of Mountain’s “Long Red” as much as the atmospherics of Slint’s “Good Morning, Captain.” The dubwise deconstruction and fragmented Kraut-rock of Millions Now Living Will Never Die roused a generation of beat-crazy bedroom polymaths like Four Tet and Prefuse 73. But on their third album, TNT, Tortoise honed in on the Mingus-DJ Premier- and-Aphex Twin-inna-Wicker Park-loft aesthetic of 1995’s “Cliff Dweller Society” B-side. Their worldview crystallized and the backlash began. No matter. By their last album, Standards, they could kick out a post-American jam called “Seneca,” spitting allusions to Marley, Sonny Sharrock, and DJ Shadow’s remix of DJ Krush’s track with the Roots’ Black Thought, “Meiso.”
In fact, It’s All Around You sounds less like post-millennial Soft Machine than the kind of world parties that form the new underground of the over-30 hip-hop-gen set—Marley Marl ’86 bass thump, Art Ensemble ’69 funk, Japanese dub, Brazilian samba, Afrodisco, British broken beatronix. Tortoise may be the only band that can match the everything-mashup steez, sonic skills, conceptual ambition, and breakbeat heat of the Roots. But if the Roots make a virtue of versatility over the course of a full-length record, Tortoise’s all-hearing curiosity rolls out within the unity of a composition. “Five Too Many” begins with interlocking vibe figures that might have come from a field recording, then shifts into a James Blood Ulmer funk groove. The squalling autobahn ambience of “Dot/Eyes” rides a trunk-shaking bottom at a BPM comfortable enough to accommodate the a cappella of Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul.” All the world in each song.
On the samba-driven jigsaw complexity of the title track, guitar and vibraphone finish each other like Run and DMC. “The Lithium Stiffs” sounds jazz and prog, its lush chords and 10cc-ish ah-ha-ha’s meandering around the garden. But by now Tortoise know how to bring the drama, and it builds into the towering climax of “Crest,” an elegy of harpsichord, marimba, and strings that’s the closest thing to an anthem—or a Levi’s commercial—that Tortoise have yet constructed. The album closes with a nod to Roy Ayers on “Salt the Skies,” then suddenly rumbles into a raucous noise bursting with almost everything the band’s detractors have been demanding—speed, emotion, volume, and something approaching a guitar solo. For Tortoise, even haterade is potential pimp juice.
Tortoise play Bowery Ballroom April 21 and 22.