Listen to this track by post-rock influencers and musical landscape artists from Chicago, Tortoise. It’s “Djed”, the epic opening track to their landmark 1996 record Millons Now Living Will Never Die. When I say epic, I really mean it; this piece is over 21 minutes long, friends. But, it’s not like it has that many verses, as if we were talking about a pop song. It moves, and changes in a way that pop music can do on a smaller scale. But, it doesn’t play by pop music’s rules.
This is perhaps why this music was called post-rock; that it goes past the rules set in place by traditional rock music, and exists as the result of ignoring the barriers, and simply having differing goals while using the same tools.
So, where did an approach like this come from? Was it simply inspired by what technology could accomplish by the 1990s? Or is this less about technology, and more about something that has always been a companion to innovative musical movements; the unexpected.
Listening to pop music is kind of like wandering into a room, where you are told a story with the expectation that you will leave that room after the story is over. Listening to “Djed” is akin to getting on a train, sitting down, looking out the window, and seeing the landscape slip past. It’s the music itself that’s leaving, while bringing you along with it.
There is musical terrain explored here that seems as though it will be the defining feature to the landscape, that you can’t imagine will suddenly change. But, as in a real trip across a landscape, it changes again anyway and brings you to a new geography, sometimes completely different to the one you just left; moving through a wide open field, and suddenly over a bridge, a rushing river, then into a mountain range, or along the edge of a lake. You don’t question it, you just appreciate it for what it is, even if (or especially if!) it happens in an unexpected way. Because even if you had certain expectations of the journey, the details of it are always the surprise that makes what you take in all the more appealing.
It’s not like this approach found in post-rock came out of nowhere. In addition to referencing ’90s electronica and indie-rock, to my ears a lot of what this piece does is to reference jazz and jazz fusion of the late ’60s and early ’70s, particularly Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way. This is music that has also traded in moments of quiet, of noise, of lines that seem to be going down a certain avenue, meet a dead end, then discover an open road, or disappear underground in abrupt ways, or in ways that follow a single line that a listener might not have noticed right away.
The common thread between all of these musical traditions is that of contrast between simple intertwining lines as they each fit into chord progressions, and the emotional effects they evoke, with any one of them having the potential to become the focus at any time. So, even if there aren’t always musical “events” found here as there are in a lot of pop music, the music holds your interest in another way. It makes you think about which line, which texture, which motif is about to take over. It makes you anticipate which one you think might take over, but might also suddenly disappear completely.
This is another kind of payoff that perhaps most pop songs don’t deliver.
Tortoise is an active concern today. Learn more about the band at trts.com.