Mind Over Mirrors and Tortoise impress audience at Iron Horse

By Alexander Beebe

(Aviv Small/ZUMA Press/TNS)
(Aviv Small/ZUMA Press/TNS)

NORTHAMPTON – Last Monday, Chicago-born post-rock innovators Tortoise stopped by the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton while touring with its new album (released Jan. 22) “The Catastrophist.” The group was supported by the similarly Chicago-based one-man progressive electronic project Mind Over Mirrors, which resulted in an even more stylistically diverse concert than Tortoise creates on its own.

Mind Over Mirrors opened right on schedule and caused everyone in the venue to literally turn their heads. Tortoise’s equipment was set up on stage causing everyone in attendance to face that direction. But Mind Over Mirrors managed to begin without anybody noticing. He set himself up directly in front of the man working the soundboard, which was nearly underneath the stairs leading to the mezzanine and in the complete opposite direction of the stage. Lit by a tacky, neon purple overhead lamp and a subtle, green floor light, Mind Over Mirrors started to play his slow-building music without introduction or announcement. This abruptness lead most of the crowd to simply turn around, but it seemed to leave audience members on the second level confused as to where the music was coming from as he was positioned practically underneath them.

Mind Over Mirrors’ set was serene and set a heavily atmospheric tone for the night that prepped the venue for the electronic and ambient leanings of Tortoise’s sound. Mind Over Mirrors performed two colossal soundscapes from his compact synthesizer station and stayed in his own bubble for the entirety of his performance. He remained silent with the exception of a small chuckle after an audience member yelled for him to “Play that one again!” following his 30-minute opening song.

The first composition was an ever-evolving collage of entrancing passages that began as hypnotic and distorted drones permeating throughout the venue and gradually grew into spacey, glitch-laden and near-psychedelic minimal techno. Like his contemporaries in experimental electronica, it was evident that Mind Over Mirrors was constructing his progressive compositions from the ground-up in the live setting. Watching him continuously press down on pedals as if he were walking in place, use sampling and warp his flourishing songs while sitting down, virtually in the audience, was the most intriguing element of his performance. It perfectly captured the sense of intimacy that one looks for in a smaller venue like Iron Horse.

Tortoise followed with its set and delivered an inimitable melding of dub, minimalism, jazz, krautrock, math rock and post-rock with a level of vigor and energy that was very impressive for a band of their age. The majority of its set list was comprised of songs from “The Catastrophist,” but at least two songs previous albums were included in the show. Tortoise is renowned for being a band that is unconventional and experimental in nature, and its oddball stage presence most certainly reflected this.

At the front of the stage, two drum sets were facing each other. Behind that, sat keyboards, to the far left, a vibraphone. There was so little room on the stage, that the band had to place a marimba and a synthesizer off-stage, requiring a band member to disappear from view to play. All of the members of Tortoise are extremely proficient multi-instrumentalists, so one of the most unique pleasures of seeing it live was that no member would stay on the same instrument for too long, and the band would regularly shift their instrumental duties after every song. A single member would rotate between bass, drums, synthesizers, the marimba and the vibraphone. The technically challenging rhythmic structures of their songs would often require there to be two drummers and two bassists playing simultaneously.

The entire concert was a genuinely rewarding experience. The music Tortoise played was bizarre, complicated, unpredictable and intense, with just as many moments of seething post-rock crescendos as chilled-out dub vibes. But the band never forgot to keep it fun. Considering its technical prowess and comedic on stage banter in between songs, it was clear that Tortoise doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it does take its passion for making boundary-pushing music that rages against the norm seriously. Perhaps that’s why – even after performing an encore – the entire venue was still erupting with overwhelming applause and chants demanding more. It was especially satisfying to see Tortoise answer those pleads and perform a second encore.

Alexander Beebe can be reached at [email protected]