Punk set its sights on killing a lot of things — disco, arena-rock, singer-songwriter pabulum — but even the earliest anarcho-rumblers paid their respects to prog-rock icons as varied as Can (a fave of John Lydon) and the Red Krayola (a crucial influence on Pere Ubu, among others). Starting in the ’90s, a new generation of bands arose that adhere more strictly to the prog tenet of pure sound as an end in itself. This all-instrumental Chicago-based aggregation is one of the most intriguing, given its willingness to cut across cultural lines to skim tricks from dub reggae and hip-hop — not to mention its virtually all-rhythm lineup.
On the quintet’s debut, the beckoning warmth of the gently shifting rhythms (credit drummer John McEntire, also of Gastr del Sol, the Sea and Cake and Red Krayola, drummer/vibraphonist John Herndon, late of Poster Children, and percussionist Dan Bitney) make it easy to forget that there’s nary a whit of guitar and only the briefest whiff of standard-issue keyboards in play. The disc derives most of its melodicism from the interplay between bassists Douglas McCombs (of Eleventh Dream Day) and Bundy K. Brown (Gastr del Sol) — which reaches its apex on the (Jah) Wobbly “Spiderwebbed.” Fragmentary blips of melodica (on the pastoral “Night Air”) and prehistoric synthesizer break the surface now and again, but Tortoise is primarily a manifestation of the axiom “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Although Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters is ostensibly a remixed version of the debut, sonic architects Steve Albini and Jim O’Rourke treat each song as if it were a tabula rasa, rendering them virtually unrecognizable — but without perceptibly changing their spirits.
With Brown replaced by Dave Pajo, Millions Now Living Will Never Die finds Tortoise messing with structure a bit more purposefully. McEntire, the foremost of three percussionists, steers clear of 4/4 beats, imbuing “The Taut and Tame” with a Canterbury school sense of jazzy playfulness. On the 20-minute “Djed,” which oscillates from dub reggae sensuality to TV-theme giddiness without a whole lot of square-peg/round-hole toil, he duels with fellow stick-men Herndon and Bitney on mallets, marimbas and more.