By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
IN 1998, EVEN prog rockers have good taste. Twenty-five years ago Genesis wrote 25-minute-long, pseudo-virtuosic disputations on Dumb that unapologetically referenced the myth of Hermaphroditus. Adding insult to injury, Peter Gabriel showed up for Genesis concerts dressed like a cross between Pontius Pilate and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Today, style-conscious college-loan refugees called "post-rockers" make martini-dry musique that's rarefied enough to suggest college-radio chic as the year 2023 would have it.
And these two bands, Tortoise and Trans Am, are the rarest around. Both work, ever so loosely, in the tradition of a long line of Chicago post-punk guitar bands. Yet Tortoise loll around like jazzy electronauts (space jazz on a magic carpet in a holding pattern), and Trans Am make like groove 'n' noise androids (Kraftwerk meets Fugazi in the Horsehead Nebula). Still, they are quite similar in theory--and believe you me, these bands are in theory. Their records are chilly, craftily obscurant, and self-consciously constructed--as if both bands drew out their musical game plans on a graphing calculator. And because stoic distance is a must here, neither band sings a word.
Tortoise gained a cult in 1996 with Millions Now Living Will Never Die(Thrill Jockey), a droning mess of electronics twaddle that might be the worst white pop experiment since Vanilla Ice. Yet, on their new TNT, they evince warm chill-out fodder that wanders through a storehouse of diverse sound imagery. The album's opener, "TNT," takes the somber elegance of Miles Davis's late-'60s innervisions and pushes it along like stately sonic driftwood (as propelled by drum wiz/mastermind John McEntire's nimble percussive flutter). "Swing From the Gutters" has a nice mambo curdle and cocktail-jazz highlights. But the most transporting moment here is something called (take a deep breath) "In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Women and Men," on which wide-open guitar noodling and an atmospheric shuffle play Roy Rogers off Buck Rogers. It rolls off into the sunset until it falls off the edge of the world, and the song sounds so vivid you can almost watch it. Yet TNT isn't all genre-fiddling genius. "Ten-Day Interval" is a rote redo of Steve Reich's marimba masterpieces, and some of the more retroactive spacey stuff meanders a little too mushily, even for electronautical travelers. Yet, for all its pretensions--or (you guessed it) maybe because of them--TNT has a mildly intoxicating effect. Which is saying a lot for music that feels like it was created in a test tube.
The Trans Am record is more straightforward, alternating between dance-trance dabblings and gonzoid meta-rock. And that's pretty much the whole story. They skip between one kind of drone and another kind of drone with riotous glee. The band that places the sci-fi white noise of "E.S.I" against the Jesus Lizard-on-crank jams "Home Security" and "Extreme Measures," and acts like this is all in the tradition of "Who Put the Bop," is a swell rock group--post-rock or otherwise. And their marriage of the spirit of Steve Albini and the sound of Trans-Europe Express (or is it the other way around?) is certainly welcome in this scene. As is a good dose of George Clinton, but I don't see that coming any time soon. Still, no matter how you cut it, the Trans and the Tortoise both beat the tar out of Peter Gabriel in a Halloween costume.