I don’t recall exactly how I came about discovering Chicago’s Tortoise, but I do remember being intrigued by the title of their second LP Millions Now Living Will Never Die. It sounded like an old Pentecostal church refrain from my childhood. It was a tagline explaining that those who had accepted Jesus would never die when he returned. They strongly believed it would happen in our lifetimes (hence the never dying part). I was likely not one of those set for immortality because I was too busy thinking about my Columbia House obligation or Hotwheels collection.
Still, the old saying had some value and intrigue for me, especially in the context of an album name for an electronic band. Despite the name, there was little in the way of a spiritual connection as nothing suggested olde time religion. Much of “Millions…” sounded like an inventory of rock, electronic and jazz musical styles set to a Zen chill vibe. Started by bassist Doug McCombs and drummer John Herndon, the five member line up was not your typical electronic band. With two bass players and multiple percussionists, Tortoise used the musical language of dub and electronica to create a vocal-free hybrid very early in the game.
It’s interesting that I learned of Tortoise after hearing Mogwai. The two bands have a similar sound and musical approach. Despite the few years between their debuts, both bands came out of the post grunge void. I doubt that Tortoise was not trying to be the next Nirvana, but a for its time Millions Now Living Will Never Die was a unique musical milestone. Aside from its top-notch production values, Millions… would be an early creative and critical peak for Tortoise and inspire similar bands like Mogwai.
The first track “Djed” covered just about every musical style that led up to the modern electronic music genre. Like a mufti-facited classical suite the song sums up the album in one 21 minute track. Tortoise was one of a handful of new bands that emerged in the early ’90 with a sound that fused the maturing and evolving electronic scene with more traditional rock styles.
Fusion of some sort or another exists throughout Millions Now Living Will Never Die, but the albums most track has to be “Dear Grandma and Grandpa”. It’s the closest thing to straight up electronic music on the album and was one of my favorite tracks.
The fusion even included jazz elements to create a kind of mix that Radiohead would explore shortly after with OK Computer and Kid A. In “Glass Museum” the vibraphones might have made Milt Jackson proud. For the time, Tortoise was one of those bands that was too difficult to peg easily into the ambient, rock or jazz categories. That inability to be easily summed up might explain the lack of radio play beyond NPR.
While few mainstream music fans may have ever heard of Millions Now Living Will Never Die or know who Tortiose is, their impact on various forms of rock fusion can’t be understated. Today we take for granted the merging of once separate musical genres. That kind of mixing way be Tortoise’s biggest legacy.