If any band is capable of dealing a sharp body blow to pundits who opine about the increasingly short attention span in the rock world, it’s Tortoise. The quintet, who returned to the Big Apple on Wednesday for a sold-out two-night stand, traffics in long, complex instrumentals, engages in no stage banter and plays in near-total darkness, none of which came between the band and a crowd that waited in rapt silence for each subtle payoff.
Tortoise took the stage with little fanfare following a vibrant-but-vexing set from Thrill Jockey labelmate Nobukazu Takemura, a Japanese-bred sound sculptor who coaxed winsome Kraftwerk-via-Carl Stalling tones from a wildly wired Powerbook. From the onset of its 75-minute perf, the Chicago-based band displayed a no-nonsense attitude.
Building its songs horizontally rather than vertically, Tortoise emphasizes rhythm without overtly attempting to create danceable grooves. Deliberately paced songs like the surf-jazz foray “Djed” were anything but visceral, despite the booming low end provided by bassist John McEntire.
But getting down is not the point here: Tortoise walks a fine line between vaguely jazzy structures and the angular prog of King Crimson, perhaps the most kindred of spirits, given the carefully constructed, improvisation-free nature of pieces like “Seneca.” Oddly, the band members seldom seemed to interact, save for strange relay race handoffs on their frequent instrument switches.
Drawing primarily on its new “Standards” album, the quintet — which gained some notice in non-indie circles for its work with Brazilian innovator Tom Ze, engaged in fewer percussive digressions than at past appearances, instead spotlighting the fine-spun guitar and bass work of Jeff Parker. His pensive contributions were particularly effective on the languid “Eden 1” and the jarring, sinister “In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Women and Men.”
Other pieces, notably the Zappa-esque “The Taut and Tame,” let John Herndon and Dan Bitney share steering duties, trading off on vibraphone and percussion, occasionally settling into a vibe duel that positively peeled back the club ceiling.
Tortoise occupies an odd space on the musical continuum. Lack of volume and intensity makes it possible to dismiss the band as hipster easy listening, but the deluge of musical ideas lends a distinctly uneasy tone to the proceedings. Fortunately, the band has found a way to make the most of that discombobulation.
Tortoise plays two Los Angeles dates next month: June 7 at Vynyl and June 8 at UCLA’s Royce Hall.