tue 23/07/2024

The Necks, Village Underground | reviews, news & interviews

The Necks, Village Underground

The Necks, Village Underground

Australian slo-mo improv trio spin a potently hypnotic web

The Necks: devastating improv

Novelty and rapture are rare commodities in Shoreditch these days, where everything has already been tried, and nothing surprises. But Australian post-jazz trio The Necks, ending their European tour at Village Underground last night, mesmerised the audience into dumbstruck awe with their slo-mo ambient improvisation.

It’s an act they’ve been polishing since the late 1980s, and for a crowd that has the patience to allow the hypnotic weave of minutely manipulated cycles of minimalist phrasing, building to an organic dramatic shape, it’s utterly engrossing.  

The trio, of Chris Abrahams (piano), Lloyd Swanton (bass) and Tony Buck (drums), emerged from the jazz and experimental music scenes, and their performances today are a highly polished amalgam of minimalism, ambient music and free improvisation that usually takes the form of a single, long piece. Most of their albums consist of a single track of an hour or more; live, there are two pieces, one for each set. They improvise each piece; every time they play something unique emerges, determined not just by the interplay between the three players, but by the acoustic of the venue and the instruments to hand. As frequent international tourists, they tend to use the equipment available in each venue, and its unique timbre also flavours their act.

The Necks in performanceTony Buck began the first set, with swirling washes of sound evoking a gentle breaking swell. Abrahams and Swanton responded with minutely-patterned recurring phrases, that moved slowly at first, then with devastating and irresistible power towards a climax. This combination of technically brilliant control of the individual, patterned, grooving phrases, with a lush, even Romantic sense of the larger cadences of the piece is the core of their playing. Though the detail of each player’s technique is so well integrated into the whole, rather like the dots in a pointillist painting, it can be difficult to appreciate the skill required to build long phrases, with such intricate rhythmic and melodic patterns. But it's awe-inspiring.

Buck is both drummer and percussionist, with an armoury of bells, clappers and shakers with which he adds texture and atmosphere to the swelling rhythmic phrases. Maracas clapped like a rattlesnake in a blasted desert bowl. There was ominous use of bass rhythm from all three, bass drum, lower double bass and the bottom register of the piano crashing like the arrival of a distant tsunami. While such long pieces – movements in a never-ending symphonic experiment, perhaps – inevitably need time and a certain concentration to take effect, the advantage of their unpredictable shape, used devastatingly last night, was the ability to sustain a gradual intensifying of volume or tempo for an uncomfortable length of time. Exhilaration turned gradually to extortion.  

The effect was compelling and hypnotic. The Necks create cycles of tension and release  – over tens of minutes – that are perhaps closer to the symphonies of Mahler than anything in jazz: for all of their commitment to experimentation, there’s the same enjoyment of soft textures and fragments of melody as there were for late-Romantic symphonist. A certain patience is required, however. There are no big tunes or catchy rhythms, and the drama of their pieces, which is overwhelming at its height, demands a willingness to immerse yourself in their smouldering, intoxicating washes of sound. But with that commitment, the listener can go on a rollercoaster ride, which seems utterly incongruous given the delicacy with which most pieces begin. Mood changes quickly from a caress to a threat. Are the unfamiliar hands on your neck those of a masseur or serial killer? Time will tell.  

They claim each piece is completely spontaneous, with no prior collaboration or planning: inevitably, as with any so-called “free” improvisation, some patterns of musical memory and shared experience are bound to be present. This is partly what makes a piece by The Necks instantly recognisable; more than that, however, is the fact they've created something original, and few other groups, present or past, can match that.

Mood changes quickly from a caress to a threat. Are the unfamiliar hands on your neck those of a masseur or serial killer?

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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