Thursday December 8, 2016 – The Croxton Bandroom, Thornbury, Melbourne
In the wake of their first album in seven years, The Catastrophist, Chicago post-rockers Tortoise brought their legendary live show to an eager Melbourne following at the Croxton. I was slightly sceptical as to how Tortoise’s brimful, lively compositions would translate in this venue, but from the opening bars of the monolithic Gesceap it was clear the band’s live show would prevail in any conditions.
Tortoise have always been an odd one in the post-rock canon. Put them side by side with Mogwai or Godspeed You Black Emperor and the only real tangible similarity is that both are instrumental acts from the nineties. Where most post-rock acts use glacial textures and decadent instrumentation to lift a simple refrain into the sublime, Tortoise are more dexterous, unpredictable, and a whole lot less apocalyptic.
Tortoise’s sound could best be described as percussive, but without the aggression or dance floor sensibility the term typically entails. Their use of percussion is delicate, and with the sprightly droplets of xylophone and squeaky clean guitar arpeggios over rolling grooves, it assumes the fluidity of water. Although the band wear their influences (notably Steve Reich, Neu! and Sun Ra) on their sleeves, they are never eclipsed by the sum of their parts.
On-stage band roles are nebulous, with each member trying their hand at the cornucopia of instruments at their disposal. This could be an unwieldy arrangement – and I’ve seen plenty of showy, pointless gear juggling – but in the hands of these veterans each transition is conducted with grace and aplomb. Indeed, there were three different drummers for the first three songs and I still can’t identify with any certainty who the ‘drummer’ is.
There was certainly some vague impossible hope that Georgia Hubley from Yo La Tengo would materialise to do her vocal on Yonder Blue, but the group still managed to bring the new material to life without the record’s roster of guest vocalists. Elsewhere, the career-spanning setlist was testament to the enduring talent of a band who have never in their 20 years exhibited a dip in quality or intent (though I could have done with a little more from the early masterpiece Millions Now Living Will Never Die). Highlights included the double drumming spectacle Gigantes and the tasty Morricone licks of I Set My Face to the Hillside.
Tortoise’s sound may not have weathered many permutations in its lifespan, but it is one that is so singular and determined it defies the need for evolution – only further exploration. Watching the band render their world of emotionally ambiguous, jazz-inflected post-rock on stage, the vision we were introduced to on their records becomes ever more concrete.