“TNT,” even today, stands out as one of the most unique recordings made in the last 20 years. In 1998 I would have found it no less than mind blowing. Tortoise’s blend of dub, krautrock, cool jazz, and a host of other influences is idiosyncratic and fascinating in turns you never expect it to take, spinning and decaying and birthing in methods that constantly surprise. It’s like a mashup of genre concocted by some evil scientist, one that has an exceptional concept of rhythm and groove and a penchant for jazz, not to mention a knack for audio engineering.
Called (qu)easy listening by many when it came out, the album expertly meanders a landscape of sonic frontiers, moving like a river through the time and space of music. I wonder if in some distant future you’d be able to tell this came from 1998. The first time I listened to “TNT” I felt I was part of some time travel experiment as I dipped effortlessly into past and future sounds. Track by track, I existed somewhere inside and outside of every genre until a vertiginous feeling of belonging nowhere in particular began to form inside me. Each song would evoke some historical or future era that only exists inside of Tortoise’s soundscape; like a time-bending mixture of fiction and fact that supersedes any former concept of reality.
To achieve such an effect, a pair of closed eyes and good headphones are required. If ever there was a headphone album, “TNT” is it. Sounds dissolve and emerge above and around on “TNT,” falling and swelling in and out of the canvas. Guitars circle around swathes of cirrus clouds; drums drape lines of syncopation like oceans of paint; basses groove hard lines of funk and jazz in undulating rock formations. One gets an idea through Tortoise’s album of how a soundscape can imply a landscape, of the way music can be pastoral and funky in a space all its own.
“The Suspension Bridge at Iguazu Falls” is one of the tracks I always return to on “TNT.” It’s cascading bass and tropical aesthetic swirl around in a strangely beautiful way. Marimba helps to cement the atmosphere they’ve created. When I close my eyes, I feel I’m ascending behind the falls in a glass elevator, looking out over an exotic and alien landscape as birds fly to and fro. The sky is blue, though it’s a hue a few shades different than anything I’ve ever seen before. I try to record the moment in my mind but then I wake up as if from my dream, in some other place and time.
But how, you ask, can a band transport you through time and space so effortlessly? Tortoise does it with some of the best composition work ever seen by a “rock” group. Unlike many other bands labeled as “post-rock,” Tortoise’s recordings blend and flow with familiar and alien sounds like some futuristic orchestra. Tending away from the typical guitar, bass, and drum combo, Tortoise engineers their sound like a painter tirelessly capturing a landscape. They are masters with color and texture, discovering the soul that a place holds inside of it and helping us see it with new eyes.
And so we journey onward through time and space. “Jetty” beckons us higher with ecstatic drums, organs droning and flying into the stratosphere. Before we fly off, “Everglade” relaxes back into water and earth, soothing us with a potent space that feels ancient and full of potential. Tortoise, our time-traveling guides, are eager for us to groove in and out of time with them. If we decide to trust them, we’re going to be in for one eye and ear-opening ride.