Tortoise: the Underrated Titans of Progressive Jazz Rock


Many bands and artists nowadays are being exposed to millions of new listeners on a daily basis, thanks to popular streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. And while this is generally a good thing, it’s reopened debates on whether popular acts are overrated or underrated. Indeed, the word underrated gets thrown around a lot when it comes to the world of music. However, we can’t talk about underrated acts without mentioning the band that started an entire movement but are barely ever mentioned when we talk about the history of modern music.

As the title of the article suggests, we’re talking about Tortoise and their contributions to both progressive jazz-rock and post-rock. If you take a look at the artists that we’ve previously reviewed on the site, you’re sure to find some bands that have been influenced by Tortoise. If you want to know more about them, read on for a brief run-through of what makes Tortoise one of the most important rock bands in American rock music.

Early Years

The group’s origins can be traced back to the 1980s when Doug McCombs and John Herndon were making their rounds in the local music circuit. This resulted in them teaming up with John McEntire and Dan Bitney, as the group started recording tracks in hopes of coming up with an album.

Their efforts would come into fruition when they released their first single ‘Lonesome Sound’ (a cover of Freakwater’s hit from 1989). They then released their self-titled debut album a year later, effectively kicking off their musical journey. The group came into their own when they released their album TNT back in 1998. This album marked the point in their career when Jeff Parker joined the group. TNT put the group’s jazz influences front and center, most notably in songs such as ‘The Equator’. This, however, was not your father’s jazz. Tortoise mixed in their now-iconic electronic sound, with traditional jazz instrumentation such as the marimba to come up with the sound that would shape a bevy of artists that would follow in their footsteps.

Defined A Sound

If you’re a fan of modern-day indie rock, then you should pick up on Tortoise relatively quickly as the sound that they helped lay the foundations of is what would eventually turn into the genre that’s widely beloved today. Tortoise, through their eclectic and genre-bending music, solidified the early days of post-rock and jazz-rock.

They built upon the early work of art-rock acts such as The Velvet Underground and Talk Talk. Tortoise integrated modern musical techniques into a rock genre. One of the ways they did this was through their masterful use of effect pedals. While bands at the time were only concerned about making things louder and dirtier, the band took a different approach. The reverb effect is a fundamental part of the several music genres that Tortoise blends together, evident by the fact that it’s one of the most widely available types of guitar pedal in the market. This was a breath of fresh air, as the rock scene was obsessed with the rise of grunge. Tortoise provided music fans with a more succinct and well-rounded sound that could serve as the antithesis to grunge.

If you’re looking to discover more new bands, check out our article on the 20 best Australian prog bands!

Cover photo: Levi Manchak under CC BY 2.0

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