The Sounds of Silence

illustration by Jason Stout

Rock is dead.
Or so you may have thought, if you were one of the 700 or so people packed into Emo's on a Monday night last May while five normal-looking fellows from Chicago, known collectively as Tortoise, cluttered the stage with all manner of instruments and filled the room with a mesmerizing collage of sounds that seemed to have little to do with the normal goings-on of this city's foremost punk club. Onstage, an instrumental duet had the entire crowd holding its breath -- marimba and vibraphone going head to head, malleting out the Morse code for the end of modern rock music as we know it.

Having sent out this message over the course of three full-length albums and numerous singles, remixes, and import collections, Tortoise proved live what they had proved long ago in the studio: that they had indeed inverted and subverted the most basic elements of rock music -- lyrics, time signatures, verse/chorus structures -- coming up with something that's far more cerebral than visceral without abandoning the essential heart of it all. Intricately composed, the band's music evinced a balance of electronic sounds, percussive and stringed instruments, and studio enhancements, all of it played emotionally in the live setting.

The pop-culture trend this music follows is a technicolor yawn that continues to punctuate the demise of "alternative rock," so it makes sense that the so-called "post-rock" movement seeks to inject intelligence, originality, and technical complexity into a staid genre to the point of incomprehensibility. Compared to the travesty that the Smashing Pumpkins have become (to use another Chicago example), Tortoise isn't rock at all. They build songs through repeated melodic fragments, through evocative layers of drums, vibes, and synthesizers laid out in complex and fragmented time without the guides of vocal refrains or repeated bridges. Yet they play in rock clubs to rock audiences, and as they proved to the rapt crowd at Emo's, some of it does rock.

The unsettling implications of Tortoise's exhibition stand to be repeated, albeit on a smaller scale, Sunday evening across town at the Electric Lounge with a show by Chicago Underground Duo and Brokeback, neither of whom, in this sense, rock. Recording for Thrill Jockey, an independent Chicago label whose roster is eccentric, to say the least -- from pure electronic music to hard rock to roots country -- these three bands may differ greatly in musical style, but they all share the same unspoken (even unclaimed or unwanted) aim of redefining the rock aesthetic.

"Brokeback is meant to have a lot of space," says Doug McCombs, bassist for Tortoise and lone member of Brokeback, a solo bass project centered around the Fender six-string electric bass. "I don't have to worry so much about whether the bottom is being held down, it's more about the melody and less about the arrangement or the backdrop. For the most part, it's melodies that are just floating there, they're not anchored down by anything."

The balance between sound and its absence plays a large part in much of the experimental post-rock music that's developing just outside the mainstream of popular music. At this weekend's Electric Lounge gig, McCombs' constructions will be textured by Noel Coopersmith, a jazz player/double-bassist also from Chicago, but while it might be tempting to label something this free in its translation as such, this music is not jazz.

"That's not the way I approach music," confirms McCombs. "To be a really effective jazz musician, I think you have to have the capacity to hold all of those chords in your head and be able to improvise on a moment's notice -- be on top of your stuff all the time, chops and things. I don't have that mentality, the ability to process all that information at a moment's notice. I can improvise, but I can't improvise on those changes. I tend to lean toward more expressive types of improvisation."

For the Chicago Underground Duo, jazz is definitely an active ingredient in the mix. The group consists of cornetist Rob Mazurek and percussionist Chad Taylor, both of whom are based in Chicago, and both of whom are active players in many kinds of improvised music in the Windy City. The songs on their debut CD, 12° of Freedom, are wide-open arrangements of drums, vibraphones, cornet, piano, and flute, often ranging to the point of entirely free improvisation with occasional guitar accompaniment by Jeff Parker, who's responsible for Taylor's return to Chicago from the New York free jazz community and is also a member of (who else?) Tortoise. Yet the music they make is not simply "jazz."

"I've studied jazz and played a lot of it, but I don't treat the Chicago Underground Duo as jazz," says Taylor. "It's not rock music, necessarily, it's more dealing with sound collages. That sort of thing has been put out on Thrill Jockey records, so in a weird way, I think it fits with some of the stuff that's been recorded for them."

"Weird" is perhaps the best way to describe the links between bands and band members of this huge, incestuous web of new music coming out of the Midwest, especially Chicago, where Thrill Jockey and other indie labels vital to this scene -- Drag City, Quarterstick, Atavistic, Hefty, and Perishable, to name just a few -- are based. While Chicago and Thrill Jockey seem to be at the hub of this new and experimental music, the movement goes beyond both their limits and connects at many points, some more visible than others.

One of the most obvious commonalities between the people making this music is that they're on indie labels and are not, by accessibility or presentation, driven by financial considerations. Most releases in this arena (except for "big" ones like Tortoise) settle for selling a few thousand copies, and that's as expected. As McCombs says, "Most of us do these things on pretty small budgets."

Before its recent demise, Trance Syndicate records was the Austin residence for bands who were moving in similar directions. With the 1994 release of WhatFunLifeWas, the near-comatose electric rock of Bedhead jarred the sensibilities of many local rock fans. Just as Thrill Jockey is ground zero for the post-rock movement of Chicago, Trance Syndicate was the local locus, putting out product late in its life from Paul Newman, who build silence and whollop with the best of them (bassist Eddie Robert has his own six-string bass solo project, called Cyrus Rego), and the American Analog Set, whose quiet, lengthy, and hypnotically repetitive tunes approach the narcotic.

In the post-Trance age, it's do-it-yourself until further notice, and that's exactly what local quintet Knife in the Water has done (see accompanying story). To the droning organ, add pedal steel, a gloomy perspective, and a myriad of loping rhythms, and you've got Plays One Sound and Others, the local band's recent debut. The Golden Arm Trio, one of Austin's few avant-jazz combos, released their self-titled debut last year to small but vigorous acclaim.

According to McCombs, there are similarities between what's happening in the Windy City and what's begun to take shape here in the River City. There's even crossover in personnel, as Max Johnston, former member of Freakwater, has signed on with local bluegrass-rock band the Gourds, and Grant Barger, respected producer of the genre, has relocated to Austin and started a new band called Plum.

"There's always been people [in Chicago] who are willing to listen to all different kinds of music," says McCombs. "There's a good network of newspapers and listings so that people are aware of what's going on, so there are people to support these things.

"I think Chicago's a major metropolitan area that doesn't have a lot of the drawbacks of some of the other major areas. It's really affordable to live here, and yet culturally, we have all of the same things that you have in New York, maybe not quite as intensely, but there are a lot of young people here who can afford to live here, do what they do here, and be around to support the music.

"Another thing to mention is that probably 80-85% of the people who go out and listen to this play music themselves. There are a lot of musicians here. I know a lot of this is the same in Austin, lots of people going out to see each other's groups and stuff."

For the sake of clarity, perhaps boundaries should be set for the post-rock movement, a roll-call called, because although it might not seem like there's a lot of common ground between a solo electric bass project and a studio-intensive five-piece band that uses vibes as a main instrument, there's actually plenty of crossover.

First of all, it's the players. Tortoise shares McCombs with Eleventh Dream Day, a seminal Chicago punk rock band that's been around for 15 years; guitarist Jeff Parker and multi-instrumentalists Dan Bitney and John Herndon with Isotope 217°, a jazz- and funk-based experimental group; percussionist John McEntire with guitar-oriented melodic rock bands the Sea and Cake and Gastr del Sol; and Herndon and McCombs with the For Carnation. And that's only the beginning. Connections reach back to the two bands that got all this started, namely the now-legendary midwestern indie rock bands Squirrel Bait and Slint, moving outward and forward to encompass all kinds of music.

A common reference point in all of this, and probably the farthest removed musically, was Palace (aka Palace Brothers and Palace Music), the brainchild of New York-based singer-songwriter Will Oldham, whose latest incarnation, Bonnie Prince Billy, now releases material on Oldham's own Palace Records label. Palace put its albums out on Drag City, with songs as bare and acoustic as decades-old Robert Johnson recordings. Oldham's unique and disturbing vision is built on country and folk roots music, with plenty of background hiss and noise and a sense of personal apocalypse underlying the lyrics. This tenor is shared to a certain extent by Freakwater, Chicago's Carter Family roots band on Thrill Jockey, which is headed up by the near-grating harmonies of Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean, who plays drums for Eleventh Dream Day.

Outside Chicago, the approach in production to this roots-oriented music is shared by lo-fi minimalists like Low and Acetone, as well as many psychedelic-inclined neighbors including Labradford and Lullaby for the Working Class. Reconnecting this music to Palace are country-tinged quiet bands like Fuck, Clem Snide, and Lambchop. There's also the tension/release buildup of Seam and Bitch Magnet, which relies on a musical technique used to orchestrated chamber-rock extremes by Rex, Rachel's, and Red Stars Theory.

To avoid opening the maw of this discussion too widely (What about electronica? DJ sound collages? Computer-produced soundscapes?), it's only necessary to revisit the Tortoise show of last May. The opening act, Oval, also a Thrill Jockey act, was a one-man-one-computer outfit that built electronic fields of sound resembling an intermittent deviation in transmission intensity from a power plant if heard while lying in a parking lot a short distance away. No melodies, no structure, no life. This highlights one other thing, besides the centrality of melodic construction and the disregard of commercial considerations, that all the "post-rock" bands mentioned here share: they play real instruments. No matter how intense the tones or rapid the changes or intellectual the patterns, if it comes from the heart of a computer, it sounds like it comes from the heart of a computer.

What's left, then, is what follows rock music. Yet to call it such would be limiting the boundaries of "rock" in regards to what has come before, a compression of the form that does it a horrible disservice. Rock is not dead, really, but rather undergoing another revolution -- albeit a quieter one. Or, if it is dead, then it has died before and come back from the dead as something else, something better as envisioned by a small group of people who are looking for something better.

McCombs, one of the key players in this reinvention, takes a historical point of view on the matter. He got his start in the mid-Eighties punk scene of Chicago, and to him, it's all punk rock.

"Certainly in attitude," he says. "I think of Tortoise as a punk rock band. It's not so much related to punk rock of three chords, but punk rock of the idea of 'Do it yourself, remain autonomous, don't compromise, do only what you want to do, and do it because you want to do it and not for any other reason.' That's kind of what I mean by punk rock.

"Musically, I don't know what Tortoise is, but it's all such a natural chain of events to me that it all still seems like punk rock. Even Brokeback, which is this quiet, sparse stuff. I still think of it as punk rock."

The Chicago Underground Duo and Brokeback play the Electric Lounge Sunday, January 31.

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