Nowadays the word “prog” (derived from “progressive” rock, known historically for complexity, virtuosity, and songs about elves) appears so often, it can be easy to gloss over how much critics and scenesters alike used to deride it for its grandiosity and over-the-top aping of classical-music sophisto pomp. Almost three decades have passed since punk reactionaries mocked the spectacle of keyboard demigod Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) playing a grand piano suspended from a crane. In the official Rock History, Progressive Rock was the bloated, sterile, technique-obsessed antithesis of fast and cool. But legions of rock-nerd researchers have deconstructed this convenient myth. Turns out 70’s art-rockers such as Robert Fripp of King Crimson and Brian Eno played a big part in the avant side of new-wave. Synth-popsters The Buggles (“Video Killed the Radio Star”) even briefly joined Yes for an album. Revisionist history now highlights bizarre hybrids and mutations: ‘70’s “prog-punk” outfits like the Cardiacs, and the wacky, sproingy world of so-called “zolo” music.
But a whole generation of hipper-than-thou rock critics had to move on before the labyrinthine rhythms and higher-dimensional chord changes of prog could sneak in again as “cool people” music. By the mid 1990’s, When Tortoise and Stereolab insinuated their arty electronic neo-progisms into the playlists of college rock stations and chilled-out urban coffee lounges alike, the ideological war against musically ambitious art-rockers was long over (even if Rush and Yes could still never get a sympathetic review at Spin or Rolling Stone).
Tortoise came to Austin recently after a three-year hiatus, and generated sublime acoustic science with standard rock instruments plus xylophones, numerous synths, oscillators, sequencers, laptops, etc. Prog makes up only one of the elements in a Tortoise show; they also excel at a sort of liquidy abstract art-funk (is “experimental instrumental hip-hop” a genre?) that owes a debt to the freaky lysergic jazz of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock in the “Bitches Brew” era. Digital revisionism or analog futurism.? Both. Do Tortoise songs “have a point”? Maybe not, as the Chicago 5-piece seem to love texture and latticework structures that take up to 10 minutes to pulse and blip and bloop their way to the next dimension. It’s anything but dull (unless your cognitive mode is so ADD remote-control channel-clicker as to only like two or three minute long pop and rock songs.) But Tortoise challenges listeners to not need lyrics and lead-singer personality to make music interesting, instead making subtle, intricate micro-worlds that slowly evolve and grow…and sometimes a strong melody emerges like an alien flower blooming on a planetoid. For the most part the crowd enthusiastically followed the Tortoise through funky math-isms, nerdy excursions into signal-processing, and forays into noisy psych-jazz abstractions. In the 21st century, every possible processed digital sound effect is available to the recording band, but only Stereolab rivals Tortoise at gracefully choosing from these innumerable possibilities within the context of a song. The leading edge of electronic soundscaping is not solely the domain of purely electronic artists as long as groups like Tortoise are making consistently interesting records and superb live shows.