REVIEW: The Necks, The Corner Hotel, Tuesday 29 January 2013
Chris Abrahams piano, Tony Buck drums and percussion, Lloyd Swanton bass
Adrian Jackson, in a 1998 review of James Fielding’s three-CD set Notes From the Underground, noted that the keyboard player’s ensemble work “rewards attention”.
That’s surely particularly apt for any performance by The Necks, because the band’s unplanned, set-long improvisations consist of incremental changes that emerge almost imperceptibly from sustained patterns. Close attention is required.
When I heard The Necks previously at The Corner, each of three shows was sold out. I don’t believe that pattern has been repeated this year, but there were plenty of diehard fans ready to take their seats and listen attentively to two sets of about 50 minutes each.
On the previous occasion, as I recall, in each set there was a slow build to a climax that was obviously cathartic for the fans, who had queued to get into what seemed like a temple of worship. It was impossible not to be caught up in the accumulating tension and in the release.
Afterwards I reflected on the irony that these sessions of free improvisation followed such a clear pattern. Yet the audience reaction was immediate and positive — they loved it. And, while the end of each set was similarly tumultuous, the process of arriving there was quite different. The revel, let’s say, was in the detail.
There was less of the climactic in the two sets on Tuesday. They were quite different in approach. I was more transported by the second.
Set one seemed to be about creating a whole, bringing about cohesion, so that the band’s energy gradually became centred and self-perpetuating, feeding off itself.
From time to time, as changes occurred, my attention shifted to one instrument — the bass more insistent, the piano’s growl, the chime of a bell. But as rhythmic patterns were established and textural landscapes built, the development process seemed so subtle as to be almost suspended for periods.
Incremental augmentation was the rule. Buck’s drums held it all together, with Swanton’s bass adding talk and Abrahams some keyboard forays as the whole evolved in long, slow, regular undulations.
Eventually the wholeness began to break up, led by oscillations from the bass and some upper register bowed notes. There was a sense of winding down as the drums backed off. With more definition and more space, complemented by fluidity and movement from Abrahams, the set turned back towards its beginning. There was no sense of a cathartic climax, but rather of a unity created and then allowed to dissolve.
The second set was a different kettle of fish, confirming that inventiveness and not only patterns and patience were integral to this band’s way of working.
It began with the drone of bowed bass and the murmur of metal gears moving on the surface of a drum, then the distinctive, airy rattle of a monkey drum. This was less about rhythm and more about an array of sounds.
There were rattlings, rumblings and knocks — discrete contributions in a busy panoply, at times like a jungle at night without the cries. Timbres were richly diverse and interwoven. This was a series of divergent paths rather than a whole.
Buck at the drum kit began to lift the intensity, adding to plucked bass and low piano notes with an insistent shimmering gong-like sound produced with his left foot on a bowl of bells.
The Necks began to crank up proceedings. Swanton slapped his bass, Abrahams with his left hand maintained a sustained undercurrent as disparate paths began to coalesce into a strong, cyclic pulse.
This is the point at which I felt what firm followers of this band must yearn to experience again and again. As the intensity grew, I wanted to give in to the sound, merge with it and let its energy carry me along. I felt it as warmth, as a life force.
Was this dangerous? Was I in church? Was I in a cathedral of fire? I suspended judgement. I gave in. I sank into the sounds.
After a while there was a backing away, with the piano ushering me back to clarity and awareness. The spell was broken.
But the denouement was slow. Eventually solo piano signaled relief, an awakening, a new day. We were floating somewhere in a gentle breeze.
I would have been content for this set to end there, but it lingered. It seemed as if the band members were not sure whether to begin anew.
That uncertainty meant the music went on a little too long, but it was also a reminder that The Necks do not plan or rehearse. It had been months since they played together and in any musical conversation there must be threads that do not go anywhere and topics that are left unexplored, loose ends.
The Necks did not fill the house on this occasion, but they delivered an experience that definitely rewarded attention.
The Necks on tour:
Thursday 31 January: Corner Hotel, Melbourne, Vic, Australia
Sunday 3 February: Governor Hindmarsh, Adelaide, SA, Australia
Wednesday 6 February: Byron Bay Community Centre, Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
Thursday 7 February: Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane, QLD, Australia
Sunday 10 February: Lizotte’s, Newcastle, NSW, Australia
Wednesday 13 February: The Basement, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Thursday 14 February: The Basement, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Saturday 23 February: Sarah Blasko with West Australian Symphony Orchestra – support at Kings Park, Perth, WA, Australia
Friday 22 March: Castlemaine Festival, Castlemaine, Vic, Australia
Saturday 23 March: The Street Theatre, Canberra, ACT, Australia