The best way to understand Tortoise is to remember that they are a group formed entirely of bassists and drummers/percussionists. With background and side projects in grunge and hardcore bands, Tortoise emerged from the need to be creatively versatile, with the musicians pursuing ambience, math-rock, and dub in a heady and steady brew that adds up to the retroactive label of “post-rock.”
Also it helps to place Tortoise among their contemporaries: Fugazi came a little bit earlier and aren’t usually associated with Tortoise, but Fugazi’s Red Medicine seems to be tapped into the same zeitgeist as both Tortoise and Slint (a member of whom left to join Tortoise in time to work on the album Millions Now Living Will Never Die). Slint seem like the paranoiac cousin to the kinder dub-math ambience of Tortoise’s earliest albums. Or to say it another way, Slint would never have named a track on their album “Ry Cooder.” Slint would also never have segued into positively Reich-ian repetitions like on the famous Tortoise track “Djed.” And it’s hard to imagine a band like Mogwai without Tortoise’s prior steps.
Tortoise’s newest album Beacons of Ancestorship remains just as intellectually gregarious as Tortoise’s earlier work (the track “Yianxianghechengqi” is a mix of what one music reviewer called “Schoenberg and hardcore”) but the music seems more immediate. They’ve stayed current with explicit explorations of dubstep ideas (on “Northern Something”), and the opening track “High Class Slim Came Floating In” even feels at times like a jaunty take on contemporary R&B instrumentals before becoming an extended jam sesh of rumbling minimalism.
For their Walker show Friday night, Tortoise will be joined onstage by the Minneapolis Jazz All-Stars: Douglas Ewart (formerly of AACM), JT Bates (of Fat Kid Wednesdays, the Pines, and Alpha Consumer), Mike Lewis (of Happy Apple, Gayngs, Alpha Consumer, Andrew Bird), Greg Lewis (trumpet guru of Redstart and elsewhere and father of Mike Lewis), and Michele Kinney (of Coloring Time, Jelloslave).