Twenty Years Later: Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die

by: Michael Shields

A post-rock masterpiece by one of the genre’s best turns 20…

Tortoise

I am often in a position where in order to see a musician or band I admire deeply, I have to go it alone. While in the most ideal of situations I would choose to experience the gift of live music in companion, the fact of the matter is it isn’t always easy to convince others to join me on some of my more idiosyncratic excursions. These lonely treks are most often made in pursuance of the genre of post-rock. In the words of critic Simon Reynolds, who is known to have coined the term “post-rock,” the genre1 employs “rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords.” Post-rock oftentimes sources from dub music, electronica, jazz, and krautrock and is unconventional – and surely not for everyone.

This odd, or more aptly put, unique, appetence for post-rock can be traced back directly to my discovery of an album by a band out of Chicago called Tortoise. That album, TNT, had me wide open. TNT was like nothing I had heard prior, where evocative, seductive rhythms paired with driving, jazzy drum beats in a whirlwind of radical orchestral rock. Fascinated by TNT, I familiarized myself with Tortoise’s catalog and quickly learned there was another, that TNT wasn’t Tortoise’s first masterpiece, but rather a follow up to a seminal album in post-rock’s young history. The album, entitled Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Tortoise’s second full length effort, turned twenty years old this past weekend and it’s influence is as commanding today as it was back in January of 19962.

Tortoise is composed of drummer John Herndon (Wax Drippings), drummer/engineer John McEntire, bassist Doug McCombs (Eleventh Dream Day), percussionists Dan Bitney, and guitarist Jeff Parker. For Millions Now Living Will Never Die, famed Slint guitarist David Pajo stood in for founding member Bundy K. Brown on bass, and the story goes that this newly aligned formation escaped to the great state of Vermont for a ten day hermitage where the foundation for the album was laid. Inspired by the musical patchwork of sound that is David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Tortoise emerged galvanized and upon returning to Chicago, the band immediately dipped into the studio and went to work, crafting a forty two minute instrumental mind fuck that opens with a triumphant track entitled “Djed,” which accounts for exactly half the length of the entire album.

I have heard “Djed” described before as post rock’s manifesto, and this statement hits the nail squarely on the head. This twenty-one minute marathon of a song commences with the haunting sounds of echoed explosions and measured, pulsating suggestive bass licks that are brought to life by the invigorating drum work of John Herndon and John McEntire. It is here where the ride begins, an excursion down a long winding road where what starts as minimalistic meanderings in organ fueled psychedelia bleeds into a vibrating concoction of dub and trance music. “Djed” is patient and pointed at the same time, beaming with a hypnotic signature, at times a runaway train chugging with desperation, and in others an anesthetic, a meticulously built wall of sound that is wholly engrossing.

While “Djed” is surely the centerpiece of Millions Now Living Will Never Die, it is also the precursor to some of Tortoise’s most affecting tracks, such as “Glass Museum” a consummately moody glance at the more organic sound that would arise in Tortoise’s later work, and it is clear on tracks such as this the extensive influence that Tortoise has had on modern post-rock virtuosos such as Explosions in the Sky or Mogwai. Or “A Survey,” a tense and foreboding moment that sets the stage for the excellent, “The Taut and Tame,” a barefaced and engaging composition that features sharp, driving drumbeats and feathery chimes that are somehow both rattling and reassuring. “The Taut and Tame” is vintage Tortoise, where the physical alleviating reaction from the song is as powerful as the intellectual curiosity it invokes.

Millions Now Living Will Never Die closes with the terse, sulky “Dear Grandma and Grandpa” and “Along the Banks of Rivers,” a fitting swan song to this classic work of art; an atmospheric, affectionate kiss good night where softly swirling guitar and bass riffs lull you into a fantastical dreamscape. “Along the Banks of Rivers” is as tranquil a song as you will come upon, in the most fascinating and beautiful of ways. An emotional end to an absolutely gripping album.

While heralded as the godfathers of post-rock, the term has never truly suited Tortoise as they are more interested in fusing genres rather than defining them. Through incorporating elements of dub, reggae, rock, hip-hop, free form jazz, and electronica, Tortoise birthed an altogether novel sound and went on to release a series of rhythm based, percussive masterpieces3, with 1998’s TNT and 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die being chief among them. Tortoise can easily be looked upon as sonic adventurers, and Millions Now Living Will Never Die finds them at their most brazen as within this avant garde whirlwind there is a bravado present, a sureness in spirit and delivery. The musical progressions of the album might appear meandering on the surface, but in design and execution they are both purposeful and urgent. Millions Now Living Will Never Die is amiable yet consistently challenging, and is a quintessential album not only within the genre of post-rock, but in the history of American music.

  1. In his review of Bark Psychosis’ album Hex. []
  2. The album’s title, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, is a reference to a brochure by a former president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, J.F. Rutherford. []
  3. “First and foremost, I’m a drummer. The drums are the foundation for everything else.” – John McEntire, Tortoise’s unofficial “frontman.” []

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