The Tortoise and the split hairs

Tortoise implement Standardized testing of music and criticism

When's the last time you saw a turtle lead a charge? That's the role influential instrumental Chicago band Tortoise have been drafted to play, a banner shoved in their hands as they're sent out to wage a war on foreign soil. The flag (some say cross) Tortoise have been forced to bear since forming in 1990 is the label post-rock, a music-journalist creation originally defined as "using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes."

Indeed, Tortoise have been made the standard-bearers of a genre for which they never intended to be a part, and the spotlight bestowed makes the band easy targets around which critics (including this one) can lob semantic grenades to serve their descriptive purposes. But what Tortoise get in return is the unique opportunity to spur a re-evaluation, not only of rock but also of post-rock.

Look at it this way: Tortoise are the anti-U2. While the public begged U2 to return to honest rock and leave the irony and experimentation behind, Tortoise risk criticism for each step they take toward straight rock and away from the mixing board. Ever since Tortoise took a guitar part, processed it and spread it over a track like it was lite jelly, they were credited for helping free the instrument from cock-rock oppression. That meant getting lumped into a jazz-leaning avant-garde movement, despite their roots in punk and continued admiration for the likes of Henry Rollins.

Nowadays, if they so much as strap on an instrument outside closely monitored laboratory conditions, they risk condemnation by the indie-rock high court. And those folks must be high if they miss the red, white and blue American flag-emblazoned album cover of Tortoise's recent Standards, their fuck-you to anyone who would dare make a presumption about what the band should be.

Whether Tortoise ever meant to waive convention in the face of critics, with each album the red-hot debate flares over what type of standards Tortoise keep for themselves and the genre they have come to define through no choice of their own. But unlike past albums, Tortoise seem to be intentionally inciting critics on Standards. Compared to the previous album, TNT, with its lengthy, highly detailed pieces, the songs on Standards hum more viscerally and buck with more funk. Sure, there's plenty of processing, but clearly they're rocking more and seem, to some at least, less cerebral. That surely has made some people love Standards, and others hate it. And hopefully more think about it. Sounds like the making of a flag burning.

"I think a lot of our material is pretty multifaceted," says Tortoise founding member and bassist Doug McCombs, "in that it can seem one way one day and it can seem a different way the next day. And I think that's because there's so much of our personalities and who we are invested in the music, so we end up with these really well-rounded songs with some degree of depth."

Certainly, there's a lot of content and context lurking in and on Standards that could be questioned — that's standard issue for a Tortoise album. Unfortunately, it's less standard for other bands (save the occasional Radiohead, whose Kid A owes a bit to Tortoise) to raise so many questions. So when such a group arrives on the scene, it's a good idea to support them. Tortoise did its part this past April in the U.K., where they served as curator for the three-day "All Tomorrow's Parties," a yearly festival of international acts.

Among those like-minded artists picked by Tortoise to perform were English broken-beat duo Autechre and sometime Atlantan Prefuse73 (aka Scott Herren), two of the acts also accompanying Tortoise on their current tour (with improvising electro-minimalist Nobukazu Takemura rounding out the impressive bill).

Artists such as Prefuse73 destroy convention as readily as any post-rock artist. On some of his new album, Vocal Studies & Uprock Narratives (Warp), Herren minces vocals over a bed of scuttling breakbeats, destroying the sacred hip-hop virtue of flow. Like rockin' a mic whose wire has a short in it, vocals are sometimes reduced to mere fractured rhythmic texture. Using an instrument, the voice, so far out of character, Herren forces a gut response from listeners. So is it post-rock? Well, that sort of gesture doesn't feel post-rock — it feels punk rock.

And so maybe that's the simplified answer to the post-rock question. Maybe that's what post-rock is supposed to be: the new punk rock, only with computers. Where punk coiled away from classic rock's bloated body by paring down songs to three chords and three minutes, post-rock rebels against generic power-chord modern-rock by stretching out songs and heaping on instruments and processes only music majors knew existed.

Hopefully hearing Tortoise's Standards and acts such as Prefuse73 will elicit some questions. And if you're still not so sure about this whole post-rock thing, maybe one of these days you'll find yourself properly post-rocked, and a group like Tortoise will bring you out of your shell.

Tortoise, Prefuse73, Autechre and Nobukazu Takemura perform at the Roxy Theater Thurs., May 24. Showtime is 7:15 p.m. Tickets are $16, available through Ticketmaster at 404-249-6400.??