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Millions Now Living Will Never Die by Tortoise (1996)

Sometime during my experience living in Guatemala from 1996 to 1998, I received a newly-released CD as a gift from my younger brother. A friend of his had turned him on to a group named Tortoise, and he thought that their style of music would interest me. This unorthodox and difficult-to-classify album turned out to be the perfect soundtrack for my strange years of living in Latin America at that time.

One label given to the album is post-rock, but I've always been skeptical of artistic labels that begin with the word "post." We'll probably have to wait another decade or so before the album is befittingly classified through the benefit of hindsight.

The release is entirely instrumental, unless you count the odd, disembodied spoken voices that drift in and out from time to time, and the abundant sound effects. There is plenty of the customary setup with guitar, bass and drum that we typically associate with the rock format, but you also have a good bit of xylophone, impressionistic keyboards, sampled loops, and experimental noises. Also, and perhaps most importantly, none of the songs have a conventional structure.

Unlike previous efforts by rock groups like Pink Floyd to incorporate odd noises and unexpected transitions into a standard popular music format, Tortoise seems to be taking things a step further by reversing the concept, that is, by inserting a rock-influenced approach into an avant-garde way of composing and playing music. That's part of what makes the songs so tantalizing, because at moments the listener might think that the music will follow a predictable and recognizable pattern, but Tortoise is relentless in its efforts to thwart this tendency at every turn.

The album's heavy minimalism is what impresses me the most about it. A lot of what makes it so moving are its moments of extended quietness and the slow, gradual nature of many of its progressions, just like the name of the band might imply.

The striking CD cover, featuring flat blue and gray colors and images of swarming fish, really captures the spirit of the work -- impersonal, detached, weird, and abstract.

During my extended Latin American adventure, I played the CD a great deal, and since returning to the United States, listening to it has always brought back memories of those often disorienting and personally transformative years.

The American version of the album, which is the one I own, only contains six tracks. The non-American release has the six American tracks and three additional bonus tracks. Finally, there is a Japanese version that includes all of the aforementioned tracks and an extra tenth track. Since I only have the American version, I will limit myself to a discussion of those six tracks.

It's a contemplative album that almost seems to make a mellow philosophical statement of sorts, if instrumental music is indeed capable of doing such a thing. It exudes a kind of understated coolness that never comes across as pretentious or showy, regardless of Tortoise's unquestionable technical and compositional expertise.

This is one of the very few albums I own that I feel is best experienced by listening from beginning to end, over and over, without focusing too much on particular songs. That being said, each of the tracks is nonetheless worthy of detailed analysis.


The album's opening track, "Djed," begins with an odd shuffling, scraping, squelchy sound effect that repeats over and over with a highly unusual rhythm. It seems like it might have been sampled from underwater sonar and then fed through a tape loop -- an otherworldly noise, to say the least. A prominent bass guitar and reverb-heavy electric guitar featuring a mysterious sounding, James-Bond-style melody line are then spread over the strangeness.

The melody repeats only a few times, then, we are left with the bass guitar playing one note repeatedly for an extended number of measures. A buzzing, edgy organ insinuates itself into the mix, then the drums kick in energetically. It feels like the fish are swarming forward, perhaps.

Under the steady beat, there are subtle shifts in tone, small touches of instrumental variations, and brief interjections of unusual sound effects. The layering of the musical details becomes progressively thicker. Then, elements are carefully and subtly removed, leaving only the organ and drums, then, only the drums and bass. The instrumentation builds back up again, only to fade out completely as another hard-to-describe repetitive and rhythmic sound effect, perhaps the noise made by some kind of mechanical component, overtakes the mix.

The ringing, slapping sound lowers its tone, and is then accompanied by a simple, endlessly repeating organ riff, which is joined by a gruff, geometric guitar part, which in turn is accompanied by a thick layering of different types of xylophones.

The simple yet densely textured melodic pattern builds and continues on until, suddenly and unexpectedly, it seems as though there is something seriously wrong with your CD, as if you had been eating something greasy and had wiped your hand on a section, causing it to skip. But this is an intentional sound effect added into the production.

The ringing, slapping sound overtakes everything again, this time more agitated and intense. A crunchy, walking beat fades in, with desolate synthesizers droning way off beyond the horizon. It's like you are now walking across the Antarctic tundra or something. Two xylophones fade in to the mix and gradually overtake it completely, then are themselves overtaken by an elemental 1960s-style synthesizer melody. That fades away too, leaving only the crunchy walking beat.

Finally, the energetic part from the beginning of the song is reprised, but in a lethargic, sedated fashion, bringing the 21-minute piece to a close.

I suppose that "Djed" might be interpreted in any number of different ways. You'll just have to listen to it yourself and find out what it brings to your mind.

"Glass Museum"

This track opens up with a powerful, soaring guitar lick, which draws back slightly for a brief, finger-plucked high-notes bass solo.

The instrumentation falls away and there is a quiet interlude during which the chord patterns of the song continue onward with little more support than the soft feedback of the instruments.

The main riff comes back suddenly, then dies abruptly, replaced by one low, repeating bass note. A Black-Sabbath-style guitar lick emerges, and transitions the song into a furious section dominated by heavy, fierce drumming and frenetic xylophones and conga drums, all of which finally give way to the intro melody to end the piece.

Overall, it makes me think of swooping around snowcapped mountains in a hang glider or something like that.

"A Survey"

This is a 3-minute piece with an ominous feel. It opens with the sound of crickets at night. A meandering bass part comes in. I can't tell if it involves one or two bass guitars.

Soon after, the highly improvisational song quietly fades out.

It brings to my mind a huge alligator swimming through a swamp in the darkness.

"The Taut and the Tame"

When it starts up, this tune has a frantic, nervous feel to it, as if someone drank way too much caffeine and decided to try to capture the feeling in music. In my view, some of the best drumming on the album is in this piece, especially in the middle, when the spirited beginning is replaced by a slower, much heavier groove.

Both simplistic and highly complex at turns, on this track, Tortoise really showcases their considerable technical and creative abilities as musicians.

"Dear Grandma and Grandpa"

This song is more of a sound-effects exploration than a piece for played instruments. It contains an ethereal Moody-Blues-style organ, a pulsating yet barely noticeable bass line, a faintly discernible phone conversation, the blaring of a British police siren which fades in and out, and a heavily delayed percussive noise of some kind.

I don't know how much Grandma and Grandpa would have liked this one, but as their grandson, in some indescribable way, it makes me think of the warm affection I had for them as a small child.

"Along the Banks of Rivers"

The previous track fades into this one without any real separation. It opens with quite possibly one of the grayest, most melancholy and deeply mournful guitar melodies I've ever heard. The sadness, disillusion and defeat are almost palpable, but there also seems to be some dignity and hard-won wisdom in it as well.

This is followed by a part that reminds me some of one or two trippy Pink Floyd pieces from earlier in that group's career, except that here the sound is much more controlled and sedate.

The track ends by returning to the opening riffs, then, comes to a quick close without any fanfare, as if the bar has just closed, everyone has just headed out the door, and tomorrow is just another day.

I wouldn't recommend Millions Now Living Will Never Die to just anyone. A lot of people who listen to it probably won't get it. But that's part of the problem -- there is nothing to get in the first place. You simply have to sit down and experience it rather than listen to it in a focused way. Read a book or type at the computer while you play it, then you'll understand its value as a work of music. It creates an evocative mood and establishes a kind of uniquely liquid ambience.

In fact, extended listening just might make you realize that you yourself are one of the zillions of anonymous fish portrayed on the cover.

Reviewed by Somebody Else 11/1/11

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