Tortoise (band)

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Cover of Tortoise's 1998 album TNT

Tortoise, is a musical group formed in Chicago, Illinois in 1990. Current personnel include John McEntire (drums and keyboards), Doug McCombs (bass guitar), John Herndon (drums, keyboard, vibraphone), Dan Bitney (percussion) and Jeff Parker (guitar). Former members include Bundy K. Brown (bass guitar; left in 1995) and David Pajo (guitar; left in 1998).

Tortoise's almost entirely intrumental music defies easy categorization, and the group gained significant attention from their early career. The members have roots in Chicago's fertile music scene, playing in various indie rock and punk groups. Tortoise was among the first American indie rock bands to incorporate styles closer to Krautrock, dub, minimalism, electronica and various jazz styles, rather than the standard rock and roll and punk that had dominated indie rock for years.

Some have cited Tortoise as being one of the prime forces behind the development and popularity of the so-called "post-rock" movement. Others, however, have criticized Tortoise's music as being derivative of progressive rock and argue that Tortoise have been subject to much undeserved hype for such a relatively new ensemble.

Other groups related to Tortoise include The Sea and Cake, Brokeback, Shrimp Boat, Isotope 217 and the Chicago Underground Duo. Tortoise records on the Thrill Jockey label.


The group's origins lie in the late 1980's pairing of McComb and Herndon, who imagined themselves as a freelance rhythm section (like reggae legends Sly and Robbie). That idea never saw fruition, but their interest in grooving rhythms and recording studio trickery led to McEntire and Brown (both formerly of Bastro) joining, followed by Bitney. Though songs are credited to all the musicans, McEntire quickly became, if not the acknowledged leader, at least the group's guiding force.

Their first single was issued in 1993, and their self-titled debut album followed a year later. Instrumental and mostly mid-tempo, Tortoise slowly garnered praise and attention, due in part to the unusual instrumentation (two bass guitars, three percussionists switching between drums, vibraphones and marimbas). A remix album followed, Rhythms, Resolutions and Clusters.

Brown left and was replaced by Pajo (formerly of Slint, who plays mostly bass, but offers Tortoise's first recorded guitar, as well) for 1996's Millions Now Living Will Never Die, a breakthrough, both in quality and attention. The album blended many genres, yet never seems like a pastiche. Millions showed up on many year-end best of lists, and the 20 minute Djed was described by critic John Bush as proof that "Tortoise made experimental rock do double duty as evocative, beautiful music."

In 1998, Tortose released TNT, their most jazz-inflected album. Pajo had been replaced by Parker, who had a strong jazz background. In some ways, the buzz surrounding the the follow up to Millions led to a degree of music press anticipation, particularly in the United Kingdom, perhaps raising expectations unnecessarily high for what was, in reality, twelve relatively straightforward and 1970s-inflected jazz-rock instrumentals of variable quality.

2001 led to Standards, where Tortoise incorporated more electronic sounds and post-production into its music than in previous works.

2004 saw the release of It's All Around You.

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