The MAC, Belfast, N. Ireland, Sunday 5 October 2014
Twenty five years on The Necks continues to command a loyal following around the world. Ireland is no exception. It’s been just two years since pianist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Tony Buck’s last gig in Belfast but such is the excitement generated by any The Necks gig that tickets for this show in The MAC could have sold twice over.
The Necks don’t rehearse and as such must rank as one of the most adventurous of improvisational bands. Yet the trio has honed to near perfection a vocabulary so distinctive and so minimal in conception that its performances can sound like through-composed pieces.
As hypnotic as the band’s studio recordings are, the heavy post-production that shapes and sculpts the sounds are of course absent in the live arena. It’s gloves off on stage, which accentuates audience appreciation of the trio’s empathetic interplay and heightens the sense of unfolding drama.
Abraham’s metronomic, one–note mantra is joined by Buck’s four-note mallett cycle and Swanton’s bass arco drone. The shifts in dynamics are subtle yet significant. The piano notes’ resonance stretch and contract, malletts and arco fade in and out while percussion rattles softly like wind-ruffled chimes.
A scurrying, cyclical piano motif emerges, with Swanton’s sharp arco ostinato lending a brooding edge. Buck maintains a funereal bass drum pulse that contrasts with his insistent ride cymbal hiss. The music swells as the interlocking rhythms slowly mutate. There are no visual clues between the players; Abrahams, stage right, doesn’t even see his musical partners during the performance. Big ears and intuition are the keystones of The Necks unique idiom.
At its most intense, when dense, rumbling piano, shimmering percussion and arco drone fuse, the wall of sound is vaguely hallucinatory; a kind of disconnect takes place between auditory perception and the sight of acoustic instruments producing enveloping, quasi psycadelic waves.
The music rises in slow, powerful waves, peaking in a sustained sonic storm; the calm that follows likewise steals up little by little, gradually seducing. The storm’s tail whips and lashes yet, with Buck’s cymbals howling like a gale while his mallets and Abraham’s bass notes conspire like thunder. Eventually, the energy dissipates and silence reigns once again.
It’s been a thrilling fifty-minute ride and the interval provides a welcome release of tension.
The second set begins with an unaccompanied bass introduction. Buck’s rattling shells and Indonesian-style metal shakers conjure exotic soundscapes. Abrahams enters in more lyrical vein than at the concert’s outset, the pianist gently teasing out melodic clusters of a European folkloric hue that suggest a confluence of influences.
Swanton alters course from his unfolding lyrical narrative to embrace an undulating rhythmic thrum. Buck’s percussive accents remain unerringly central to the mix. Ultimately, however, it’s Abrahams who plots the trajectory, the intensity of his play drawing the others along in his slipstream.
Inevitably, the different currents converge and the trio voice flows freely. Unrelenting cymbal and bass bomb patterns, sawing arco and swirling piano create a heady maelstrom, with Abrahams alternating sharply between staccato patterns fashioned by two and then ten fingers.
The gradual wind-down is guided by Buck, with Swanton falling into sync. Abrahams’ flame lingers a little longer, with both hands working the lower keys feverishly. Yet the same gorgeous momentum that lifts the trio to ecstatic heights also takes them out serenely in the end.
Nobody has yet coined an adequate term for The Neck’s transporting music, say like the ‘Zen funk’ used to describe Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin – a band surely influenced by Abrahams, Swanton and Buck’s musical alchemy. It’s unlikely, even with another twenty five years that anybody ever will.
Photos: Courtesy of Moving On Music
Chris Abrahams (piano)
Tony Buck (drums, percussion)
Lloyd Swanton (bass)
The Necks on the web thenecks.com
Moving on Music movingonmusic.co.uk